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.

Country Roads and Casseroles

On Sunday we drove out to Port Royal, Kentucky, a well-known little town because of one of its inhabitants, agrarian Wendell Berry. He’s oft-quoted here at Texas Schmexas, and a lot of other places these days, so I’m sure you recognize the name. I promise you, however, that Mr. Berry was not the reason for our drive (though I am pleased to have seen “the long-legged house” with my own eyes).

Port Royal is in Henry County, a little over an hour from here with nary an interstate between us–lots of tobacco, though, hanging in old black barns decorated with colorful quilt squares (and “Mail Pouch Tobacco”) painted on the side, and fuzzy brown cows, and trees getting ready for winter, and a smattering of houses masquerading as towns. In fact, I only remember two or three little “towns” in that whole hour of driving, but one was called “Gratz,” reminding me of beloved central Pennsylvania and warming my heart. We wove our way around the country roads, carefully keeping track of road signs, when there were road signs to be kept track of.

Port Royal, population of 79 in recent years according to Wikipedia, is home to two churches, a post office, a farm/feed/food store (which may or may not be a restaurant), and little else. We were in town for the Baptist church, where friends of our were preaching.

We were greeted as we walked up the steps and were encouraged to join in teasing an older fellow as if we were old friends. He ended up sitting in front of us (or, I’m sure, we sat behind his regular pew and it was coincidental), and from him we learned the history of lots of folks around town–the young pregnant couple who ran an organic farm and farm stand, the former interim preacher who won the “outstanding Henry Countian” award, his grandsons who were in from Florida for hunting season… you name it, we heard it.

Just before the “greet your neighbor” portion of the service, the gentleman at the pulpit announced that “we want to especially welcome our visitors here today,” and looked right at us. (I know we literally “stick out” in normal circumstances, due to our massive heights, but still, it made me chuckle to be called out from the pulpit.) This was a classic country church experience, though with a larger choir than expected, and I’m not sure what else to say.

Glimpses into other people’s otherwise normal communities, especially churches, can do a lot of good for one’s soul–it can help you realize what you appreciate about your own community. Or, let’s rephrase that: it can help me realize what I appreciate about my own community. I don’t often appreciate it, truth be told, even as I sit in front of my computer on a (somewhat) regular basis and write about it.

After church, we were welcomed into the home of a beautiful Henry County couple with an amazing view out over the trees. We ate lunch and we talked–about church, about people, about Henry County, our families, recipes, books, and, of course, Mr. Berry, who lived just over the hill and had known these folks since elementary school. We ate way too much casserole, stewed apples, bread, salad, broccoli, and oh-my-goodness pecan pie. And they tried to make us eat more. I wasn’t sure I could move. In fact, I wasn’t even hungry nine hours later as I was getting ready for bed (and not eating a bowl of cereal right before bed is not like me).

It was a good day with good folks in a good place.

Yes, you know it’s coming: it was community.

Greasy Spoons and Community

J is out of town for a few days enjoying community with a horde of college students at the beach, so I’m bacheloretting it. Okay, not really. I have a housemate, remember? Today, beautiful sunny day that it was, A and I decided to head somewhere spectacular for lunch:

I totally ripped this photo from a reviewer at

Fava’s is one of my favorite greasy spoons of all time, and it’s not just because of the food, though their frickles are quite amazing. Today I decided to forgo the frickles and ordered my standard small-joint fare (a reuben + cole slaw + a diet coke = happiness).

I like Fava’s because every time I go there, I see people I know. For real. Today as we were sitting in our somewhat sticky little red booth, a guy from our church came in and sat at the booth next to us (both A and I are not so great with names, so I can’t tell you who he is, only that he sings in the choir). But every time I go there, I see people I know, usually people I know well.

I like Fava’s because they’ve been in my little town since 1910! This year is their hundredth anniversary. That is quite a feat these days.

I like Fava’s because there are chairs sitting out front on the sidewalk and no matter when you walk by during the day–early morning, lunch time, evening–there are always folks sitting out there and smoking. AND they say hi and ask you how you are. No matter what.

I like Fava’s because the waitstaff ranges in age from 16 to 60, high-schoolers in low-rise jeans right up next to white-haired women with blue eye shadow.

I like Fava’s because important people in the community dine there. For real. Today we saw a guy we both recognized from a billboard in town. Ha. Beat that.

I like Fava’s because the decorations hanging on the walls and from the ceiling are absolutely random, mismatched, and kind of tacky. There’s a huge painting on the one wall that is a scene from Fava’s back in the day, complete with people who look like characters out of King of the  Hill; there’s a big collection of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia near the door;  two rows of mugs hanging the full length of the ceiling, side-to-side, I’d guess two hundred or so; signed stuff from the cast of The Nanny and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition from when Fava’s catered for them on location; and myriad other decorations. How can you not love this?

And, as if those weren’t enough reasons to sing its praises, I like Fava’s because our waitress today knew what an Arnold Palmer was.

antique red stepstools & hand-me-down lawn tools

As I pried off the unflattering plate rail from the top of our kitchen cabinets this week (don’t worry, Dad, I got it all off without breaking it, and I saved it for you), I found myself standing on an old, rickety, red, wood-and-metal combo stepstool. It’s somewhat uneven, since it’s missing one of its plastic foot things, but it works okay on the linoleum. Apart from its rickety charm and the fact that it collapses nicely into a small awkward space beside the cabinets that’s good for little else, I like this stepstool because our neighbors in Texas gave it to us.

Among many things.

When we bought our house in Texas, we met our neighbors pretty quickly. The very next day, in fact, our neighbor Pat left her business card while we were at church, and when I called to thank her for stopping by, she brought us over half of a pie. (She also told me she was very pleased to hear that we had been at church.)

We soon met an elderly couple who lived on the other side of our house, Mr. and Mrs. Friar. We never did see their name written down, and J always spelled it “Fryer” and I always spelled it “Friar,” so who knows. I’m using their real names because it adds charm to the story and you could never track them down even if you tried.

Mr. and Mrs. Friar were sweet neighbors seriously in need of someone to talk to. I will confess that there were times, in fact, that we drove around the block instead of pulling in our driveway if we saw Mr. Friar out pulling in his garbage can because we knew we didn’t have time for an hour repast of meandering conversation. (I said it was a confession: don’t judge.)

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Talking to Strangers (or Jesus)

On Saturday morning, I strapped Little Bean into her stroller and set off on a mission: to buy myself a cup of frou-frou coffee-shop coffee. Lucky for me, we’ve got two small coffee shops in my little town, both within walking distance of my house.

Unlucky for me, both of them were closed on Saturday morning.

A little discouraged, I stood at the corner on Main Street and Hamilton, waiting for the red light to change. A woman stumbled up to the corner, paying no attention to me. She was in sweat pants that looked like pajamas and she seemed tired or worn out or both. When the light changed, Little Bean’s stroller got caught on the curb, so I ended up a few steps behind the woman as we crossed the street.

I heard her groan a bit as if in pain and seemingly begin to mutter to herself.

I assumed–uncharitably–that she was probably suffering from mental illness or intoxication. Maybe she was homeless. I didn’t know, and I chided myself for jumping to conclusions about a stranger.

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Greasy Spoons, Burnt Toast, & Waitresses Who Know You

Greasy SpoonsMy friend Patti took me out for my birthday last week and we went to our mutual favorite greasy spoon restaurant (of which Texas Schmexas has sung praises in the past–here and here).

Patti’s pretty great. She recently became a proud grandma, in addition to being just a grand mama; she’s one of those really crafty people who can make a piece of paper turn into a work of art with a few folds and hand-press thingers; she’s one of my fellow odd ducks who meet monthly to share our writing; and she’s a lover of our local greasy spoon.

She meets there regularly with friends. Weekly, I believe.

She meets there often enough that the waitress who served us last week knew her.

Which is where this story really begins.

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When Friends Move Away

My best friend moved away today.

If you watch Grey’s Anatomy, you know what it means when I say that she is my person. The one who gets me. And I get her. And now she’s gone.

My husband and I spent our first five years of marriage in Ithaca, the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College. By nature of it being a college town, there was a large transient population. Nearly all of our close friends were students of some kind, destined to move away eventually.

So when we moved to our current tiny town, we expected that the transience would stop and we’d settle into some life-long friendships. People, this is a town where there are still folks living on the roads that are named after their ancestors. There’s a lot of loyalty to this place, and some pretty impressive family trees. For example, there is a family in our church which has four generations of attenders.

And yes, there's a road named after them.

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Accidental Community & The Death of Clarissa

I believe the story goes that when I got married nine years ago, the hubster and I were such cheapskates in our wedding planning that my mom rewarded us by giving us a hand-me-down car. It was a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but since we were about to drive across the country to our new home in Texas, we traded my brother for his 2001 Ford Focus ZX3.

I named her Clarissa, after Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, because one of my favorite lines in all of literature is the simplicity of the last line of Mrs. Dalloway: “For there she was.”

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We know how to do community

I love traveling. I’ve spent a few months living in both Australia and England and have made trips to Africa, Europe and Central America as well as multiple cross-country American vacations. I am energized by experiencing new cultures, seeing natural beauty, encountering native wild animals. I always thought I’d be the woman who lived in Any-Country-That-Is-Not-America. Other people might have prayed, “Anywhere but Africa,” but my prayer was, “Anywhere but rural, upstate New York”!

But no.

That's not how my life has turned out.

I grew up in rural, upstate New York. I went to college in rural, upstate New York. My husband went to graduate school in rural, upstate New York, and now we currently live in rural, upstate New York.

That’s rural, upstate New York for the win!

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Community = Comfort

There’s no denying it: I’m a homebody. In high school, my friends would say, “I can’t wait to get out of here!” or “I’m leaving and never coming back to this town!” and I just couldn’t identify with that.

Of course, I had the urge to spread my wings and be independent, but I loved my little corner of Central Pennsylvania!

College took me away for a few years, and I found myself in an entirely new community, but that’s a post for another day. Even when I got a teaching job near my college and about 45 minutes away from my hometown, I still moved back. The long commute gave me a chance to savor my coffee in the morning and chat with relatives on the drive home. (On a hands-free cell phone, of course!)

The point is this: I was comfortable in my familiar surroundings. My job and other aspects of my life forced me out of my comfort zone, but living in an area with which I was acquainted gave me such a sense of peace and belonging.

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