Join Hands, Give Thanks

Home Baking.jpg

I lived through two decades before I discovered that there were people in the world who made dressing with stale bread cubes instead of fresh cornbread. My oldest sister’s second husband, the nice one, was from somewhere up North, New York I think. He had dark, pomaded hair swept up and back and he smiled and spoke with an accent I had only ever heard on television. He made a bread stuffing with oysters. I forgave him because it was delicious, each mouthful a feast of earthy black pepper mixed with the salty ocean taste of oysters. I was home from college, and my mother volunteered me to drive the two of us up to Malakoff, Texas, where my sister and her new husband had retired to life by the lake. In those days before GPS, I got lost following my sister’s handwritten directions because I didn’t know that “LBJ” was also Interstate 635. We arrived late, but to a feast laid out on their Formica topped kitchen island and still warm. I wish I had asked him for the recipe for that oyster dressing.

My mother made her dish the Southern way, with cornbread. She used white corn meal, soft as sand, with a bit of flour, scooped up and sprinkled in like snow. Baking soda and baking powder for leavening, for we all need incentive to rise. Buttermilk to mix, salt and bacon drippings for flavor, then all poured into her largest cast iron skillet, warmed on the stove so the crust will brown first. It came out like a pale yellow moon and filled the kitchen with the warm, sweet scent of corn. For the dressing she mixed in celery, onions, broth, and enough sage to repel evil spirits.

When I was young, we traveled to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. Not over the river or through the woods, but past the lake and along Highway 380 the 15 miles or so to the town of Farmersville. My mother brought her cornbread dressing and a pie or two as her contribution to the meal. I held the warm pan of dressing on my lap where I sat in the slick vinyl backseat of our 1970 Oldsmobile, and tried not to drool on the foil covering the pan. My grandmother’s wood frame house had a tiny living room decorated with an autographed photograph of a famous televangelist, before the fall. She sent him money and prayed for healing by laying her hands on her Chroma color television while he preached. The children, including anyone under the age of 18, were banished to the back porch. We fought over metal folding chairs and balanced our plates of food on our knees while we fended off the horde of feral cats living in my grandmother’s yard. The cats were only slightly outnumbered by my cousins.

Some years we visited my father’s family, where my aunts made their dressing and gravy seasoned with the chunks of turkey heart, liver, and gizzard that came packaged and concealed inside a store bought turkey. The first time I cooked a turkey I didn’t realize there was this hidden prize inside. I found them after, steamed and tucked under the skin at the front of the turkey, where his neck would have been if it weren’t shoved up into the body cavity. The neck was roasted too, because I didn’t know there was a second, secret scrap part buried inside my turkey.

My first husband was from Missouri, and the bread stuffing his mother made was moist, but thick, and had to be scooped out in chunks. My father-in-law, an honest, hard-working mechanic and assistant Boy Scout leader, led the prayer each year, insisting that we all stand before the table and join hands. You haven’t really experienced Thanksgiving gratitude until you’ve had to convince a squirming toddler to stay still during a ten minute blessing, while the aroma of food wafts over you in a moist cloud of steam you can taste.

My mother stopped cooking a turkey for Thanksgiving after my parents divorced, when it was just the two of us left at home. She would roast a chicken instead, and make her cornbread dressing. I never saw her consult a cookbook, she cooked from memory mostly, measuring out ingredients to taste except when she was making a pie or cake. After she moved into a nursing home, I found a cookbook tucked away in a box she had stored in her laundry room. The book, All About Home Baking, had penciled notes in the margins and, tucked inside the front cover, scraps of lined paper with recipes written in her delicate, looping cursive. Brittle, yellowed pages from a 1963 calendar fluttered out like falling leaves when I turned the pages of the book.

I roast a turkey every year, even when there are just one or two guests and my vegetarian fiancé at the table. This year I’m cooking both turkey and a ham. I’ll make cranberry relish from fresh cranberries and oranges, and add so much sugar that it passes for jam. We’ll have pumpkin pie and a minced meat pie like my mother used to make, even though no one but me will eat it. It is a deliberate luxury on my part to have a whole pie to myself. My fiancé, Andrew, will mash potatoes so they come out just the way he likes them, a little bit creamy and with a few tiny lumps. When he leaves the kitchen I will sneak in more butter and salt to the dish.

I don’t cook my mother’s cornbread dressing, I’ve fallen from grace and into the boxed, instant variety, but at least it’s the cornbread version. I’ll make traditional green bean casserole with crispy fried onions on top and a spinach rice casserole from a recipe my aunt gave to me. I don’t put marshmallows on the yams, instead I’ll serve them with a pecan streusel topping like my ex-husband’s mother, my first mother-in-law, made.

The guests at the table, the cooks in the kitchen, and the fellowship changes, just as the feast stays the same. I touch my past as my hand stirs the pot, preps the bird, and kneads the bread. I bow my head in silent thanks and join hands with all, even those who are absent from the table. Join hands, bow heads and give thanks, give thanks for the love we are all about to receive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Age of Irresponsibility

Snails

 

I think our snails are up to some hanky panky. The other day they were tangled up in a position that looked like an illustration from the Kama Sutra for invertebrates. My boyfriend, Andrew, and I bought these two freshwater snails to keep company with a beta we had. The fish passed away after eight months, but two years later the snails are still sliding over the glass walls of the aquarium. Their home is a five gallon tank, complete with decorative gravel, waving plastic plants, a ceramic log, and a tiny pagoda if they happen to feel the need to meditate. They don’t do much except vacuum up the algae from the tank. It is a little like having a Roomba for a pet. The aquarium offers them both a regular bright electric light, and with the flick of switch, a mellow bluish purple tinted glow. Nerite snails are supposed to be asexual, but maybe it’s the blue light that puts them in the mood. Or maybe, like us, they just feel the need for a hug now and then.

Andrew and I occasionally discuss adding a pet to our home, but the logistics of adding an animal to our two bedroom apartment overwhelms us. Who would empty the litter box? Who would arrive home in time to walk the dog? Half a life time of caring for others has left me selfish and lazy in this, my carefree empty nest years. There are evenings where I can barely muster up the will to feed myself, let alone another living creature. I’ll resort to eating raw foods straight from the packaging, standing over the sink in order to catch any crumbs.

When my sons were young we had the usual procession of cats and dogs in our household. My younger son, Andy, was gifted once with a dwarf hamster. The hamster fit in my palm, and he had light apricot colored fur. His eyes were bright red, a satanic hue that should have warned us. We named him Mr. Nibbles, a deceptively cute name for a demon possessed rodent. Mr. Nibbles lay in wait, curled up and partially hidden by the soft wood shavings in the bottom of his cage, until an unlucky victim placed their hand inside. Then he would spring into action, leaping up and nipping any fingers within reach. He got me once in the web of skin between my thumb and index finger. I screamed and yanked my hand out of the cage with Mr. Nibbles still latched on. A flick of my wrist sent the little devil flying across the room to thud on the wall, his tiny legs splayed out like a cartoon character. I scooped him up, unconscious and unable to bite, and deposited him back in his cage.

He recovered from this trauma, but several weeks later we noticed that he had somehow lost an eye. Andy shrugged and renamed him Captain Nibbles, the pirate hamster. The lost eye did not improve his disposition. He continued to attack anyone unfortunate enough to be assigned cleaning or feeding duties, until one morning I found him belly up in his cage. I poked him with a straw first, to make sure he wasn’t just pretending to be dead. We held a funeral, complete with an insincere eulogy. I conjured up tears by remembering the pain inflicted by his sharp little teeth.

Not to be outdone by the hamster, my older son requested a Leopard Gecko for a pet. The little lizard was a light cream color with black and brown spots. He required a heat lamp to keep his glass tank at the perfect temperature. Like the hamster, he was palm sized, but unlike the hamster, the gecko was shy, and he would hide in his artificial rock cave whenever any of us tried to get a look at him. While we humans drank water from the tap, the gecko enjoyed bottled water from a battery operated bubbling fountain. The hamster, when I was brave enough to stick my hand in and feed him, ate tiny pellets we could buy almost anywhere. The gecko dined on live crickets. The crickets had to be purchased weekly, and I called local pet stores like a drug addict looking for a score. “Do you have the crickets?” I whispered into my phone at work. “Are they fresh?” I asked while I held my hand over the receiver. Before they could be fed to the gecko they had to be dusted with a special, vitamin fortified powder. I was grateful we didn’t have to cook them. Every time we opened the cardboard box in order to dump crickets into the vitamin dust shaker, several of the crickets would break free to take their chances in the wilds of my teenage son’s room. Our home was filled each evening with the musical chirping of crickets. The bugs that made it into the terrarium were stalked and consumed by the gecko with a frightening efficiency, which led me to ask Robert “How big does this thing grow?”

The gecko passed away unnoticed. We were used to seeing him immobile and hiding under the rock ledge in his cage, and it wasn’t until the crickets began multiplying joyously that we thought to examine the lizard. He had mummified in the dry heat of the terrarium, his little body stiffened and his mouth open in a sort of surprised smile.

I think sometimes that the perceived difficulties posed by pet ownership are not the fault of these creatures, but they are perhaps caused by some flaw, some deficiency in my own character. Pets provide companionship and love, and in return ask only that we care for their needs. It’s hard to imagine a more carefree pet than a fish that you only have to feed once or twice a week, but I can’t seem to work up the initiative to replace the beta. Andrew is lucky that he is self-sufficient, he can fetch his own meals and he very rarely requires a walk.

The snails continue their cleaning duties in an aquarium they have to themselves. I think they’re entertaining and lovely with their striped and spotted shells. They find their own dinner, and I only need to drop in a feeding tablet every month or so. They are perfect pets for this point in my life. Evenings I pour myself a glass of wine and light a candle or two, put Marvin Gaye on the stereo, turn on the blue light in the aquarium, and sit back to ignore the show.

 

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The Road Unspoiled

I didn’t plan on leaving the house on Friday the 13th. Not because I’m superstitious, but because I had already removed my bra for the evening. I was lounging on the couch at home, watching television and dressed in a comfortable T-shirt and fuzzy pajama bottoms, when my boyfriend Andrew texted me.

“How about a little trip out of town this weekend?” He asked. “We can go to Tyler!”

I am always up for a spontaneous weekend adventure, even if it means I have to put on a bra. After I changed into appropriate traveling clothes I grabbed a bag and started packing. We expected to leave in less than an hour, so I grabbed socks, underwear, T-shirts, shorts, and more socks and stuffed them in a backpack. I checked the refrigerator for anything that might spoil during the two days that we would be gone, and added that rubbish to the large, economy sized black trash bag that held the week’s accumulation.

Andrew arrived and packed, then we carried everything out to the car. A cooler with drinks, our bags, some reading material, and a paper sack with snacks all went in the back seat. I placed the big trash bag outside my car, on the bike carrier, so that we could drop it off at the dumpster on our way out of the apartment complex.

After some discussion, we stopped for a quick dinner of burgers and fries to let traffic die down and then, drowsy with carbohydrates, we headed out on the dark highway. I was adjusting the radio when Andrew glanced into the rear view mirror.

“Hey! Something just flew off the back of the car!”

I turned around in my seat just as a stained, shredded paper napkin flew past the window in the jet stream of air off our SUV. The weeks’ worth of garbage that I placed on the bike carrier, and intended to drop off at the dumpster, was now spewing forth down the highway.

Andrew and I dutifully recycle. We buy organic food and products in recyclable packaging so as to minimize our carbon footprint. I try to remember to bring reusable shopping bags when I buy groceries. I am a member of the Sierra Club. But this, this was the exact opposite of leave no trace.

“What was in that bag?” Andrew asked as he watched our trash whip off the back of the car and stream off into the night.

“Well, we shred everything with our name on it.” I replied, thinking of possible criminal prosecution for littering.

“Why didn’t anyone honk at us or flash their lights!”

I thought this was a decent try at shirking responsibility, but I imagine the travelers behind us were too busy swerving. After all, they had to avoid the Styrofoam containers, eggshells, and coffee grinds rushing toward them. I resolved to start a composting bin as soon as we returned home.

“At least we recycle the glass containers and metal cans.” I said. I tried to remember if last week had been the week that I threw away the bra with the broken underwire and the underpants with stretched out elastic.  I pictured my bra slapping across someone’s windshield, my faded underwear a flag flying on their antenna.

We drove another three or four miles before there was an exit. I was grateful I didn’t spot one of those Adopt a Highway signs. I couldn’t bear the thought of a troop of girl scouts picking up our soggy produce off the side of the road.

When we finally pulled over I got out of the car and walked to the back. I found the trash bag hanging from the bike rack like a large, black, deflated balloon. All that remained were some damp papers and bits of plastic, the whole thing was about the size of a head of cabbage. I stashed it on the back floorboard and when we reached the hotel in Tyler I tossed it into the trashcan at the entrance. It made a satisfying “thunk” sound going in, despite its light weight. We unloaded the car and checked into our room, our journey complete and, at least for the last part, the road unspoiled.

  • You can listen to me reading this story here:
Make America Green

This is the bumper sticker on my car!

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What I’m Saying When I Say Nothing

The woman sitting next to me in the theater was a stranger, the sort of woman who would be hard to pick out of a crowd or a police line-up. “Well, she had bright red lipstick and fashionable clothes” probably wouldn’t be enough for a conviction or a second meeting. There was nothing about her that warned me of the direction our conversation would take.

I enjoy chatting up strangers, so when she asked me if I had seen a trailer of the movie we were about to watch I joined in a conversation with her about films.

“Have you seen Blade Runner 2049?” I asked. My boyfriend Andrew and I saw it on opening night. We bought the tickets a month early, as soon as they were released, and anxiously crossed off the days on the calendar until the screening. We stayed up late the night before and watched the original Blade Runner, so we could put the sequel into the proper perspective.

“Yeah” the woman replied in between mouthfuls of popcorn, “It was really boring. I didn’t like it at all.”

I wanted to ask her why she didn’t like the movie. Maybe, like me, she bought and consumed an extra-large soda, without realizing that she would be trapped in the theatre for over three hours. While I was thinking of what to ask, she dipped her bright red lacquered nails into the popcorn bucket again. Around bites of popcorn she explained that she saw the movie about Queen Victoria and “that Muslim guy” and didn’t like it. Not because of the acting, but because there was mention of the Koran. “Really” she said, “Who needs that!”

The whole time she was speaking my mind was doing something like “Wait a minute, you don’t like Blade Runner? Wait… what did you say about Muslims? And Queen Victoria?” I didn’t get to say any of this out loud, because she just kept talking. It was like watching your toilet overflow onto your shoes as you stand there and wonder where you last saw the plunger.

When she mentioned Battle of the Sexes, I replied “I want to see that one, I remember when that match happened.”

“Well, I walked out of that movie. There were lesbians in it and they were kissing. It was disgusting. Got my money back too.” She finished this statement with a self-satisfied nod and sighed as she leaned back in her seat. It must be tiring, I thought, trying to find a movie that doesn’t offend.

When she asked if I would hold her seat for her while she went to the ladies room, I looked at her and blurted out the only thing I could think of, “I really looked up to Billie Jean King when I was young!”

I’m not very good at verbal exchanges. Give me an hour or two to write something down, and I’ll be especially witty. I was with two friends that night, a lesbian couple. While the woman was away I apologized to my friends, both for the stranger’s remarks and my lack of response. They assured me it was okay, they knew where I stood, but I couldn’t help feeling confused and shamed. What about my appearance and manner made that woman comfortable enough to share those statements?

Like most people, I avoid confrontation. I just want everyone to like me. But my silence speaks, and what it says when I say nothing is “I agree with you.”

The First Amendment gives us the freedom to hold different beliefs. Her opinion of Blade Runner might offend me, but it doesn’t harm me. And saying you don’t like coffee might worry the folks at Starbucks, but it won’t put them out of business. When you express prejudice and hatred toward people because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or political affiliation, what you are really saying is you don’t want to share your schools, your movie theatres, your businesses, or your civil rights.

My friend suggested that I respond to these conversations by saying “I’ll pray for you.” This seems like a sensible response, and most likely will not lead to my arrest, like a punch to the face might.

I’ll pray that those who follow that path of hate will instead find common ground with those they wish to suppress. I’ll pray that good people will speak out and say they don’t agree with hate, that hatred and prejudice are wrong. And I’ll pray for those who kneel, so that others may stand.

Peace, Love, and Understanding

Terrye

 

 

 

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I’ll Look for You Anywhere

My boyfriend Andrew plays this little trick on me. The prank is funny, because I fall for it every time. And it’s irritating, because I fall for it every time.

We were having pizza at Cane Rosso when Andrew pointed over my shoulder and said “Hey! Is that Robert?” I immediately spun around and tried to spot my oldest son among the people coming in and out of the dining room. I considered and rejected the elderly gentleman leaning on a cane, and the young mother wrestling her toddler into a high chair.

“What? That guy!” The only person who might resemble Robert also outweighed him by about eighty pounds. Mentally I scrolled through images of Robert. There’s Robert as he looked in college, the Christmas I drove out to Lubbock to pick him up. It was snowing, and he came out of the dorm wearing flip flops and a short sleeved t-shirt, a large drawstring bag of laundry slung over his back. He had a scraggly beard and as he walked through the snow to my car, I thought he resembled a homeless Santa Claus. There’s the Robert wearing a ball cap and a plumbing company uniform, his name handily embroidered on the front. Or maybe it’s the Robert with silvery hair from Facebook photos.

I turned back around to Andrew and frowned, but not because I missed the pizza that he robbed from my plate while my back was turned. I was disappointed that the words “Is that Robert?” failed to conjure up my son. After a moment Andrew confessed and returned the pizza. Because what good is a practical joke if no one notices?

Robert and my younger son, Andy live nearby and are busy, grown men with their own lives. I’ll see them on holidays and birthdays, but sometimes I feel I’m more likely to encounter them shopping at Half Price Books or IKEA than sitting across the dinner table. It’s not unreasonable to feel that little thrill of excitement at the prospect of encountering one of them somewhere unexpected. It’s like when someone stops by your cubicle at work and tells you there’s birthday cake in the breakroom.

All it takes is a suggestion from Andrew that Robert might be walking in the door of the restaurant, or strolling through the park, and I immediately scan the faces nearby. We can be close to home, or hundreds of miles away, it doesn’t matter. I’ll feel that small disappointment, a failure on my part because I can’t find my own son in a sea of strangers.

When Robert was an infant I dreamt that I lost him, and I was forced to search through dozens of identical babies, trying to figure out which one belonged to me. Ironically it was his younger brother Andy that wandered off once in a mall. I spent a hellish fifteen minutes imagining him gone forever before I found him. I have never misplaced Robert.

One time I drove past the park where Robert’s first grade class was enjoying a field trip, and I watched from my car as he tossed sand on another child. I hesitated, and wondered if I should intervene, but then remembered that this particular misbehavior was not under my authority, it belonged to his teacher. This was the first time I realized that I would not always have to answer for my offspring, eventually they would find their own way in the world, and others would hold them accountable.

They are my family, but no longer my responsibility. They are my sons, but no longer my children. It is this freedom that makes every chance meeting a joy. Back when they were teenagers and I spotted them somewhere unexpected, it resulted in a series of intense questioning, and not a happy reunion.

I told Andrew that it’s okay if he continues to play the joke on me, as long as he returns the pizza he takes from my plate. But next time, I suggest, maybe he can say “Look! There’s Elvis!” instead.

 

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No One Puts Squirrel Baby in the Corner (or in a box)

 

Andrew and I are having a little disagreement over our newest companion. Andrew insists this innocent little fellow is the creepiest thing he’s ever seen. That’s a pretty bold statement from someone who has seen every episode of Miami Vice, including the one where they turn Tubbs into a zombie.

When I first saw Squirrel Baby on the shelf at the thrift store, I admit I agreed with Andrew. “Wow! That is really ugly!” I said as Andrew urged me to purchase the stuffed toy as a gag gift. But then as I gazed into his little blue plastic eyes I felt guilty, as though I had told someone that their child certainly was no looker.

Squirrel Baby is an Ann Geddes creation, that artist who specializes in posing babies in weird outfits to make them look like sunflowers or cabbages. He has a plastic baby face with a neutral expression that can either seem like he’s pleased to see you or that he’s gravely disappointed in you.  One of his plastic hands is clenched, like he might be thinking about punching something. The rest of him is covered in synthetic polyester fur. He even has a tail.

Squirrel Baby

 

“Please”, Andrew begged as I set Squirrel Baby up on my bedside table, “Let’s put him away in a box.”

“Hush!” I said as I placed my hands over Squirrel Baby’s soft ears. “He’ll hear you.”

“You’re scaring me” Andrew replied.

What Andrew hadn’t taken into account, before we brought Squirrel Baby into our home, was my nearly supernatural ability to anthropomorphize almost any inanimate object. I’ve stopped short of naming my socks, but don’t ask me to part with the porcelain two headed swan vase, the spooky owl portrait from the 1970’s, the sloppily carved wooden lion, or the ceramic Christmas elf.

I even have a framed photograph of someone else’s cat. It really is a spectacular cat.

Someone else's cat

We will also not include the 32 IKEA “Gravling” stuffed toy badgers. I bought the first one and then Andrew, afraid that IKEA would discard them, bought the rest when they landed in the clearance bin.

Badgers

When I was younger (like last month) I cried over The Velveteen Rabbit. I can’t bear to watch Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer because of the scene with all the forgotten toys abandoned on the Island of Misfit Toys. I still haven’t seen Toy Story 3, because I heard that’s the one where the child goes off to school and forgets all about his loyal toy companions.

Squirrel Baby sits beside me at my desk when I write, and occasionally I bring him into the living room to keep company with the badgers, or out onto our balcony where he can get some fresh air with the owls. I’m not going to put Squirrel Baby in a box, but I’ll pledge to Andrew that we will stop short of hoarding when it comes to purchasing cast off toys. Just because there are some rooms where we cannot walk through side by side doesn’t mean we have “goat trails.”

I do believe that the discarded, forgotten, and imperfect are deserving and need our love, for haven’t we all, at one time or another, resided on the Island of Misfit Toys?

 

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Stand up Ladies!

I’ve always considered myself something of a feminist, but I have to admit there is one area where women are at a distinct disadvantage.  The great outdoors is not so great when you risk peeing on your leg because you can’t spread your legs far enough when you squat. I’ve never been envious of a penis except when Andrew and I go hiking. We’ve got a trip coming up where we will be spending five or six hours on trails at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and I’ll be carrying a little over three liters of water.  Luckily, I found a nifty little item on Amazon.

Klean Go

When I ordered them I told Andrew “Look! It’s like a detachable penis!” He was both skeptical and relieved when they arrived and he saw that they were little wax paper funnels. The cover of the Klean Go package has the phrase “A lady’s way to stand up for herself!”  I guess the phrase “Next best thing to actually having a penis” was either taken or too risqué.

The reviewers on Amazon recommend practicing at home before you attempt to use them out in public. I did, and I have to say I never realized the toilet was so far away when you’re standing up to pee. I’ll never criticize Andrew’s aim again.

 

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