Community, Mourning, & Food: Let Them Eat Pie

For the second time in less than two months, J & I found ourselves this week surrounded by family in mourning. We drove to Western Pennsylvania and gathered with family from far away and from close by. We mourned, yes, but we also celebrated; cried, but also laughed; we hugged, and we remembered, and we ate.

Did we ever eat.

On Wednesday evening, the day we arrived, so did a vat of potato salad like I had never seen. At least ten pounds of potatoes lost their lives and quite a few onions, too–after seven of us ate it for dinner, along with a delivered meatloaf, only 1/5 of the salad had disappeared.

Two full dinners arrived on Thursday, and by Thursday evening, we had more loaves of bread on the counter than people in the house. We had soup and beef stew, cole slaw and salad, lemon cake and raspberry bars. And every time we turned around, more food arrived: breakfast food, dinner food, desserts, desserts, desserts. By late Thursday night, an aunt joked that nobody had stopped by in awhile, and within a few minutes the doorbell rang. Breakfast casserole and muffins!

In days like this, we know what community is.

Grandma had lived in the same town for her near-ninety years. She and Grandpa went to the same church for the sixty-one years they were married. They raised their kids here, and many of their grandkids. This is the community J has known his whole life. And for the last ten years, it is a community that has welcomed me in, too.

One of my favorite moments of the last week came on Thursday afternoon. Some of us had been outside in the cold looking at a renovation project, and when we stumbled inside, we found that three pies had been delivered: a cherry rhubarb, a coconut cream, and a blackberry-blueberry combination. As the pies were pulled from their baskets, we realized that they were still warm.

Grandpa was sitting at the table in the kitchen, and we were all standing or sitting around him, marveling at the pie excellence in front of us.

And then the patriarch requested a piece of pie.

Right now.

Before dinner.

And so the pies were cut, first just the cherry rhubarb. Then the coconut cream. Then the berry. It became clear that if we wanted to eat pie, we’d better grab it while we could.

That is the image of community I will carry with me in the coming months: Grandpa, requesting pie in the middle of the afternoon, and the rest of the family surrounding him, happy to oblige.

The Warmth of Community

A week or two ago, we were tricked into thinking that Autumn was on its way. The lows were dipping into the 50s, and we started to get chilly at night, sleeping with our windows open. We even broke out a quilt, still packed away from last winter. I know. We were fooled.

It’s now quite toasty again and last night, even with the fan, it never really cooled off upstairs. But the quilt is still on the bed, because we refuse to acknowledge that it’s late September and rather unpleasant outside.

Every morning, we pull up our covers (yes, Mom, we do), and we spend a few seconds musing about our quilt. Every evening, as we get ready for bed, we spend a few more seconds musing about it. When I happen to wander through the room at other moments during a given day, I muse.

What the heck could we be musing about?

I thought you’d never ask.

This quilt is an artifact of community. My students are writing about communities for their second papers, and they have to select an “artifact” of the community as a way of analyzing the community’s values, so I’ve been thinking in terms of artifacts a lot lately.

It’s the quilt my mom put together after our wedding. She cut out large 12×12 pieces of material before the wedding and then set up a table at the reception where guests could write us a message with fabric markers. Then she turned it into a quilt, a big one, big enough to cover our king-sized bed.

On the whole, it’s a fun idea, and we ended up with a diverse array of messages–congratulations, of course, and recollections of shared memories, Bible verses and prayers, beautiful calligraphy right next to chicken scratch and poor penmanship, and drawings of all sorts–including one of a dinosaur eating another dinosaur, complete with blood, thanks to a young cousin. It’s lovely and fun and we get a kick out of the oddness of our loved ones. (Yes, you.)

But it’s an interesting artifact for reasons other than the particular, often quirky messages we reread to each other each day. As the years go by, I imagine it will become even more dear. Already it is a witness to people who have passed out of our lives, especially family members who have gotten ill and died, but also friends we haven’t spoken to in years. With sadness, we look at it and mourn broken relationships, yet we also see it as an account of joy, a celebration of new births and recent marriages, as we notice who is missing from the quilt. It is an account of our history up until June 19, 2004, a smattering of different nicknames, different groups of friends, different churches, close family members, long-far-off family members I couldn’t pick out of a crowd.

Of particular significance is  the medium of the message, the more I think about it. These messages are on a quilt, which is not just an artifact, really. It’s a blanket, a comfort-er. It keeps us warm when we’re chilly.

So thanks, Momma.

And thanks to you, community, for the warmth you give us.

Dinner Tables: Food and Community, part 3

For pretty much as long as I remember, the dinner table in my house growing up was always a place of conversation. Long after the plates were cleared, the leftovers were dished out into individual portions, the pantry was raided for some kind of dessert, even if it ended up being a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie, we’d sit and talk and talk and sit.

Then I went away to college.

On breaks, when we’d sit down for a meal together, the sitting and the talking got even more involved. Of course I had to find out what was going on in every branch of the family, every long-lost friend’s life; I had to hear every “you’ll never believe when I tell you this” incident.

Now, in my grown-up life, I still like to sit and talk after meals. J likes to get the dishes done. This used to be a point of contention between the two of us until we worked out a compromise: I sit and talk; he clears the table and does the dishes. It might sound like he gets the rough end of the bargain, but the truth is, (a) it makes him happy to have the dishes done and (b) it makes me happy not to have to move after I’ve eaten (and (c) I do get up and help after awhile–goodness gracious). It’s not just about sitting after I’ve eaten, though I suppose there’s something about good digestion in there, too, but the real “work” of the sitting is the conversation. So for us the conversation continues as he stands at the sink in his food-and-dish-soap-splashed apron. (This has gotten slightly more difficult in the new house, since the kitchen and the dining room are separate, but we’re managing.)

And I really like this time we have together, talking and sitting, doing dishes and talking.

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Cow Bell Alleluias & What We Do on Easter

Our opening song at church this morning was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which won’t surprise any of you raised in low church traditions like mine, considering it was, ahem, Easter.

But about halfway through the first verse, I found myself unable to sing. This is something that rarely happens to me.

In fact, I’d already paraded around the house singing it a dozen time at that point, and even called my parents bright and early to sing it as an Easter greeting to them, waiting for the sung “Ah-a-a-a-leh-eh-luu-yah” response I knew I’d receive. (I get it honestly, what can I say?)

So it’s not like I’m not familiar with the song.

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Corn Cakes & Memory Food

My mom sent me an e-mail this week with some news:

I had my first corn cakes this morning!!!!

She was pretty excited, as you can tell from the exclamation points, and I was, too. Though we live in different states, only a few days earlier I’d meant to call her with the same news. For real.

corn cakes

I, too, had made corn cakes for breakfast.

Maybe you’re thinking, “What the heck are corn cakes?

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Pappy Sands, the Stories We Tell, & Remembering the Good

Pap2My Pappy Sands passed away on Sunday night, January 27th.

Alzheimers had slowly been stealing him from us for more than a year, but his sudden, rapid decline in recent days caught us by surprise. At Christmas, his family had gathered around him to sing carols together–and he sang along, knowing the words. In fact, when I greeted him in December, he kidded with me about wanting to call me Betty. Maybe it was confusion. Or maybe he was cracking jokes. Either way, he was in good spirits.

Pappy Sands and Grandma Bev, his wife, owned a campground in New Hampshire. Throughout my childhood, we often drove the nine-hour trip north through the night to visit in the summer, especially over my birthday, the day before Independence Day. Flipping through his old photo albums, there were an inordinate number of me opening birthday presents year after year after year.

Pappy and Grandma were snowbirds in the winter, and eventually retired to Florida. We frequently drove south to Florida–again through the night–to celebrate the Christmas holiday in the warmer weather.

So yes, lots of pictures of those Christmases, too. One year, for some unknown reason, I had a Christmas sticker on my forehead in every single photo. Why I put it there in the first place, I don’t know. Why nobody insisted I remove it after the first few photos, I really don’t know.

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The Songs We Sing (Part 1), or, “If you’ll be M-I-N-E-mine…”

Some time around 1979, my dad, mom, and my dad’s sisters and their spouses formed a gospel singing group called The Family Circle. Lugging around their sound equipment and matching outfits, they sang to gospel music cassettes at assorted church events on the weekends.

From an early record cover

Eventually, they upgraded from a van pulling a trailer to a full-size coach bus decked out with bunk beds, a kitchen and dining area, and a bathroom. Since my grandfather owned a campground in New Hampshire and spent winters in Florida, The Family Circle ended up driving that coach all along the Eastern seaboard. We called it “the bus.”

I came along in 1982. By the time I was four or five, I had my own song, called My Mommy Told Me Something. I don’t remember singing it, to be honest, and at least in the one video recording I saw of myself flanked by my cousins in front of a church, I mostly stood there mute and stared at the congregation, microphone in hand.

My memories of time on the bus are a ragtag collection of snippets: Uncle Larry microwaving Lebanon balogna sandwiches, the teasing over Coke versus Pepsi, learning the “Fifty-Nifty United States” song when travelling during the school year, lots of sunburned shoulders, getting foot massages from Aunt Diana (a reflexologist), watching Top Gun in the back bedroom, sleeping on the bottom bunk on the right side across from my cousin Justin, the youngest of the group.

And, of course, all the singing.

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A Milestone Worth Celebrating…

This year marks some milestone birthdays in our family, and today’s belongs to my dad. I won’t reveal the special number, but, well, let’s just say it rhymes with “nixty.” 

In honor of him, here’s a post that has pretty much nothing to do with community. But I hope you’ll join with me in wishing him a Happy “Nixtieth” Birthday.

10 things I've learned from my dad over 
     the years, in no particular order
- How to fry the perfect egg, ice a cake, 
     and make strong coffee.
- It is probably not a good idea to go chop 
     down trees in the woods by yourself.
- Do not call anyone after 9 pm.
- Teenage boys really do have only one 
     thing on their minds.
- If you're respectful, anything is up 
     for discussion.
- Dying my hair green would only make 
     me look stupid, not him.
- The best conversations happen after 
- Always offer dessert, even if it's just 
     the bin of Little Debbie snacks.
- Sometimes a generous tip to a grouchy 
     waitress is being Christ to her.

And last, but certainly not least,

- Why, yes, you can reheat coffee in the microwave.

Happy Birthday, Daddio!

Cow Bell Alleluias & What We Do on Easter

Our opening song at church on Sunday was “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” which won’t surprise any of you raised in low church traditions like mine, considering it was, ahem, Easter.

But about halfway through the first verse, I found myself unable to sing. This is something that rarely happens to me.

In fact, I’d already paraded around the house singing it a dozen time at that point, and even called my parents bright and early to sing it as an Easter greeting to them, waiting for the sung “Ah-a-a-a-leh-eh-luu-yah” response I knew I’d receive. (I get it honestly, what can I say?)

So it’s not like I’m not familiar with the song.

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Remembering Katy

When I moved away from Texas, I left behind a dear friend with whom I shared a birthday. A charming widow who opened her home–and her teapot–to lone souls like myself, Katy was a woman who always inspired me.

To memorize poetry. To collect art. To tell stories. To invite people over for tea. To send handwritten notes in the mail. To pray. To use china.

When we said our goodbyes in 2008, Katy was excited for my new journey, though she confessed to being concerned about who would take over my trusted position in the alto section of our small choir–the one who faithfully pointed my pencil to keep her at the right spot in the music. I was sure someone would dutifully take my place, as Katy had quite a following in our community. She was beloved.

For the first few years after I moved, I received regular letters in the mail from Waco, Texas. Her beautiful scrawling script on the envelope made my heart sing, and I cherished her words, her encouragement, her wisdom. I wrote about her.

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