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Posts Tagged ‘mother’

Why did Grandma die, doesn’t she love us anymore?”

When my mother was dying several years ago, we gathered for a week at her bedside, all eleven of us, her children, coming in from all parts of the country, also numerous grandchildren.

My mother’s body was shot, after living with cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a host of other maladies, including my father who now had Alzheimer’s. She’d had enough; it was her time to go.

When I was growing up, we went on weekly picnics in the nice weather.  My mother loved to sing; she had a beautiful voice. She and my father, whose voice was not as exceptional, would lead us in the old songs that they grew up with. We would all sing around the fire at night and on all those drives to and from.

So, around my mother’s bed, we sang these same songs. When we got the words wrong she would jump in and help us. Then she died.

I missed when she passed out of her body and briefly burst into tears when one of my sisters said she was gone.

The next day I was hanging out with my nieces. Jana, a very vivacious eight year old, was very sad and angry.

“Why did Grandma die?” she asked. “Doesn’t she love us anymore?”

She could not understand why her grandma, who had held on until everyone had come in from Illinois, California, Connecticut, and Colorado, would abandon her. Jana sorely missed her.

I explained that Grandma’s body was all worn out, that it was very hard for her to stay alive when she was so old and so sick.

I said it was time for her to leave her body and go on to something else like a caterpillar in a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. “Would you want Grandma to stay the way she is, all sick and broken down, just because you don’t want her to go away?”

Jana’s face changed. Still serious, but now a little lighter, she asked, “Is Grandma a butterfly?”

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[This is the First Installment of a memorable hitchhiking trip I took in my twenties]

The Hitchhiker

I sat in the back of the speeding pickup surveying the desert in the direction the other hitchhiker was pointing. “There’s water in those mountains,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure. There wasn’t anything green as far as I could see. The truck was approaching a gas station where the guy wanted to be left off.

“You see this green part on the map? That means there’s water out there.”

I looked at the green areas that said National Forest on them and thought the guy would be lucky to find even a single plant in those mountains, let alone water. Those green spaces only meant it was national land.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Yeah. I’ll be all right.” He waved to the driver to pull over.

I’d been weighing whether I should go with him. I had always wanted to learn to live off the land. That’s what the guy planned to do. He said he’d learned how to do it from a book by Chief Eagle Feather or somebody. I had read several of those types of books, but never expected the advice to actually work.

This was my first long trip where I was completely on my own. I’d done a lot of hitchhiking, like the summer I sold dictionaries in Oklahoma, but those were all short trips, I never had to sleep en route.

For those reasons this felt like a lot bigger adventure than when I left home in Michigan.

I’d traveled to California the fall after graduating from Notre Dame. I’d worked a few summer jobs, cracked up my dad’s car, then made the trip with my brother, Bern, and a couple of his friends.

My dad had a long talk with me while we were driving down to Lansing to get the substitute car the insurance company had found to replace the one that I’d smashed.

“I know you want to go to California, but I’d rather you stayed here. There’s nothing special about California.”

I disagreed. There’s the mountains and the ocean, but he said I’d rarely see them since I had to make a living and the mountains were at least four hours away from the city, I didn’t have a car, and besides, Michigan had plenty of nice places to go.

I was unconvinced and undaunted until—”Larry, couldn’t you just stay for a while longer, just a year or two. Your mother and I need your help to support the family right now. I hate to ask you, but it won’t be for long.”

I felt my heart sink; I couldn’t say no if they needed me.

“All right.”

I said goodbye to my father, who was continuing on to Ohio for work. I returned to Spring Lake. I was the oldest son of 11 children, with five brothers and five sisters. I had an older sister, who was long gone from home. I was tired of the responsibility and weight of so many expectations. I wanted to be free, on my own.

The next day while speaking to my mother—a kind, round, long-enduring woman—I was depressed and angry that I was not going.

“How much of your stuff are you going to take? I’m not sure you’ll have room in John’s car.”

“I’m not going. I have to stay.”

“You’re not going? Why not, you’ve been planning this all year?”

“Dad said you need my help. I need to stay and help make money to support the family.”

“He said that?” she asked incredulously.

“He said he needs me to help make money for a while, that I can go later.” I had a tone of angry, yet hopeless, resignation in my voice as if I were used to having my dreams  grounded right before they were about to take off.

“You go,” she said. “He shouldn’t have asked you to stay. We’ll make it somehow. He had no business doing that. You go, Larry. We’ll be all right.”

“Really, you mean it?” I was so happy I could’ve kissed her, should have. I couldn’t believe my mother would take my side against my father. I couldn’t believe she would put my concerns above her own.

The pickup pulled to a stop next to the gas station. In the still, silent air I felt the hundred degree heat baking me and everything else. The scrawny hitchhiker got out and said goodbye. I waved to him as he fixed his pack. I looked in the direction he said he was going to go, across the flat, light-drenched sand towards the gray mountains at least five miles distant, carrying neither a water bottle, nor a sleeping bag.

Earlier, I had pulled out my salami, cheese, and bread. He looked starved.

“Want some?”

“No thanks, you go ahead.”

I cut a slice of salami with my army surplus jackknife and stuck it in my mouth even though I wasn’t hungry, “Are you sure?”

“I don’t want to eat up all your food.”

“I have plenty.”

“Well, maybe just a little bit.” He reached out and took the salami and the knife; he tentatively cut a slice and bit a dainty bite out of its circumference. Then as if something was awakened in his stomach, he popped the whole piece in his mouth, cut a larger piece and quickly devoured that. Then he took some cheese, then some French bread, a swig of water, more cheese, some salami, back to the bread, then a little more water at which time he looked up from this very focused meal.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a lot more in my pack. Why don’t you finish it, there’s too little to put back.”

He finished off the sausage, cheese, half the loaf and some more water. Then he handed back the knife, “Thanks,” and the bread, “I was pretty hungry. Haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

Earlier yet, that same day, when I had been dropped off in Baker, I found myself a good spot part way up the on ramp to the interstate.

I had a red pack with all my stuff—sleeping bag, jacket, clothes, food, map, a couple books, everything I thought I needed and could fit. I wore hiking boots and should’ve been wearing a hat. The sun was unavoidably bright and everywhere, but I was used to this searing California sun.

When I looked up from fixing my pack I realized I’d made a mistake. I should’ve stayed down near the entrance to the ramp, because now there was someone else standing there. This short skinny fellow in dirty, dark blue, work pants, no shirt, with a small, green, beaten up, army surplus pack at his feet—couldn’t have had much in it.

I was angry. I’d gotten there first! Now the scrawny bum was going to get the first ride. I felt superior and self-righteous about it. Here I was, all equipped and fully dressed, and this miscreant was going to get the ride. Way out here, I thought, it will take forever to wait for one ride, let alone two.

The scrawny guy waved, “Hey, you take the first ride, okay?”

“Okay.”

Not long after that the pickup stopped and told us both to hop in the back.

“Where you going?” I asked my fellow traveler.

That’s when he told me where he planned to live.

“In the desert? Why?”

“When I get so I can’t take living in the city anymore, I go to a place like this. One time it got so bad, I had to get out quick and decided to steal a car. And as long as I was gonna steal a car, it might as well be the best, so I stole a Pantera.”

“What happened?”

“I got caught and spent two years in prison.”

“Oh.”

“It was a big mistake.” He fell silent. I told him a little of my own story, but it paled in comparison. I was going to a friend’s wedding in Minneapolis. I was tired of my old routines, my job, a place that I shared with Bern and John. I needed an adventure; I needed to find out something.

That’s why the idea occurred to me that maybe I should see if I could tag along with him. Maybe this was the person who could help me find that something out.

However, I wasn’t ready to take the chance that this fellow really knew what he was doing. It was too big a leap and besides that, I would miss seeing my friends, my old college friends.

After fixing his pack, the hitchhiker went into the gas station. It was one of those little huts with oil cans, maps, and bathrooms. As the pickup took off under the blazing sun, I watched to see the hitchhiker start across the expanse of sand and rock towards the mountains in the haze on the horizon. But by the time I lost sight of the gas station, the hitchhiker had not yet emerged.

He’s still a question mark to me. Sometimes I picture him at that rundown gas station, sometimes, haggard and dirty, scraping by in those desolate mountains.

My mind shifted to my own trip—to see my old college friends, good friends who had once save me when I was in crisis. Rick was getting married. Both he and Kelly had gone to grad school at the University of Minnesota. It had a good drama school. Kelly was studying history of the drama and Rick was focusing on directing.

There were a few other friends from Notre Dame there too. I wished I could’ve somehow gotten back in school. I had applied to the University of California at Irvine for admittance into the writing program, but had not heard back. I felt like my life was in Limbo. Kelly had written about the wedding, asking if I could come; Theo was going to be there too—the biggest hearted person I had ever met. Perhaps this was the opportunity that would make the difference.

Despite these warm thoughts, there was a certain despair looking out on the desert from the back of the speeding pickup. The barrenness sweeping to the horizon matched the barrenness of my prospects, but I hid that from myself beneath the excitement of the adventure of going somewhere new, on my own, moving at great speed through the middle of nowhere.

NEXT WEEK:

Las Vegas Welcome Wagon and a Ride from a Cowboy

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When I was young I hated peas. There are stories and vague memories of me, around two, sitting for an hour on a little chair with my cheeks puffed out with peas, refusing to swallow. In my defense, the peas were mushy canned peas, and my mother always overcooked them. I can still remember how unpalatable they were. I refused to swallow them because I was afraid I’d throw up.

One Thanksgiving several years later, still bearing the same affliction, I was at the dinner table, mouth, full of peas, when an alarm came from my stomach to send them forth in an outward direction.

My father, perhaps aware of a disturbance in The Force, pointed a menacing finger at me and growled, “Don’t you dare!”

In fright, I reversed the flow and swallowed, possibly saving my life. Thankfully, my mother eventually changed over to canned corn, and it became a non-issue.

Later still, my father reopened an old diner called the Dinner Bell. On the menu was split pea soup. Since I could have almost anything I wanted to eat, I had no intention of trying it.

One day I was washing dishes in the back (as part of my father’s slave labor campaign) and I smelled a wonderful aroma emanating from a pressure cooker on the stove. I asked the cook, a very large and kind woman, what it was.

“Split pea and ham soup.”

I must’ve made a face, so she said, “It’s good; you should try it.”

At lunch, I took a thimbleful out back and very carefully and very slowly tried the smallest taste of it—it was delicious. I had a large  bowl and have loved it ever since. It didn’t taste like peas to me at all.

Epilogue

My wife and I would make split pea soup sometimes. I especially liked making it with lots of shredded carrots.

When Brian, my youngest was five or six, Helen had it on the stove cooking when he got off the bus from school.  As soon as he walked in the kitchen he said,”What’s that awful smell,” started to make involuntary heaving sounds and ran to the bathroom.

When he emerged, he stood in the middle of the kitchen and sternly declared to his mother,”Don’t you ever make that again!”

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Pie, particularly the dessert variety, is purely a comfort food. Comfort is a good, psychologically healthy thing, while white flour, fat, cornstarch, and white sugar, the major components of pie, are not.

The Middle Way* would neither dictate abandoning pie completely, nor overindulgence. My recommendation, if you have a pie, is not to overindulge by eating the whole thing, but rather, only eat half, unless of course it’s wild blueberry or strawberry rhubarb.**

I have always loved pie and I’m not alone in thinking it is the greatest food known to man. I’m not sure, but I think my mother may have made one once. She was not famous for her cooking skills. My father, after one of her fine meals, would declare, “That was a good meal, Rose… Larry, could you go get me the bread and peanut butter.”

Grandma, my mother’s mother, however, was a great cook. She was famous for her fried chicken, strudel, and, her pies. When she was at our house over the holidays she would sometimes make a couple. They were so delicious I can still remember how I yearned for more after finishing my little piece.

As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a large family. Eventually there would be 11 children. When I was nine there were fewer, but still a lot of pie eaters to contend with. My brother, Bern, often remarked it was like growing up in the Army—you ate as much and as fast as you could in order to get enough. For that reason, when it came to having a treat like pie, my parents would divide it up. You would get one small piece, and that was it! This is why I talked my grandmother into teaching me how to make them.

She warned me it was going to be hard. My plan was to make eight to ten pies, so that when they were shared, I could have as much as I wanted. She showed me how to make the crust. You mix 2 cups of flour, a little salt, and a cup of shortening, then you cut the shortening into the flour. This was a labor-intensive task, often done with a fork and knife, to get the cold shortening to blend with the flour—not easy. She next showed me how to form the dough by adding a touch of water and using our hands to knead it. “Don’t add much water and don’t handle it much or the crust will be stiff.”

She made a pie and with her help, so did I. I had to handle the dough a lot. When I rolled it out, it stuck a bit to the rolling pin, but she helped me. Then as I was putting the top crust on, the crust started to fall apart and she helped me again, and though my crust was a little small and I had trouble sealing the edge, she managed to flute it into a work of art.

Her pie was awesome. Though my crust was a little stiff, dry, and crumbly, my pie was still good, and now, I knew how to do it.

When the Saturday before Christmas came, I was ready. My mom bought me the pie filling and other ingredients. I measured out into two large bowls enough flour for eight pies. I cut in the required amount of shortening, an even more difficult undertaking than usual because I had 8 cups of flour in each bowl. My hands started to ache from the interminable cutting in of the shortening. But I didn’t start complaining…not yet.

I was not known for my patience in those days. Yet, I hung in there while visions of pies danced in my head.

Once the gargantuan task of cutting-in was complete, I formed the balls that would become top and bottom crusts. I had trouble because the dough didn’t want to stick together, so I kept adding water. Then came the hard part—rolling out the dough.

First I cleared a small area on the cluttered countertop. I took one of the balls and lightly floured the space. Lightly, because Grandma said to use as little as possible, then I plunked the ball of dough there and smooshed it with the roller. I attempted to roll out the crust, it stuck to the roller, I had forgotten to add flour to the roller, I did so, it still stuck. I added more flour; my limited patience was beginning to wear thin, unlike my pie dough. There may have been a few curses at this point. I rolled again, still stuck, louder curses. More flour—still sticking.

Finally, adding a great bit more, it began to roll out. However, it began developing cracks, “Shit!” I patched them with more dough. More sticking ensued. After much effort, a complete bottom crust was formed, a little thick and floury, but measuring with the pie pan, it was ample enough.

I went to pick it up by the edges, it was stuck to the countertop, “Oh, my, God.” I may have thrown a pie pan at this juncture.

Never-the-less, I persevered, the rolled crust broke up in my fingers. My beatific vision of sitting down amongst a table of brown crust with caramelized bubbles of an assortment of fruits was in danger of crumbling also. I may have thrown another pan and allowed another invective to escape my lips. I patched the new holes and cracks in my crust and started working a large spatula between it and the counter. I attacked it from all sides, until it was free; then I tried to lift it onto the pie pan. The concept was sound, but the application was fraught with difficulties. It kept falling apart amidst my cries of anguish, “Nooo!”

Finally, I got the dough into the pie pan; it was now in about eight or nine pieces. I hammered them together with my fist punctuating each blow with a word like, “Damn, you, stupid, dough.” At last, I had a crust that almost filled the pan.

In went the filling and then it was time for the pie’s top crust. More flour went on the countertop—Formica is not a suitable surface, by the way.

Despite the added flour, the top crust went on the pie in sections. I patched the cracks as best I could and tried to flute the edges. Since the dough was so brittle and scanty, that did not go well either. After some more labored nine-year-old cursing, I used a fork to mush the top edge to the bottom edge.

As you might imagine, the next seven pies did not go off effortlessly either, in spite of the fact that I went from solid top crusts to lattice after the second pie. Even the “ribbons” of lattice went on piecemeal.

At one point, my mother came into the kitchen. She felt compassion for her suffering oldest son. Either that or she couldn’t stand any more loud cries of lamentation or metallic bangs of cookware hitting the wall and floor with accompanying exclamation.

By the time she made her entrance the kitchen counters and floor were covered with flour, pans, bowls and utensils. It looked like a bakery war zone.

She stood beside the island at the end of the kitchen surveying her son covered with flour except for the flesh-colored tracks where tears had coursed down his cheeks. The kitchen actually looked worse than usual (The kitchen never looked like Betty Crocker’s, my mother did her best, but maintaining the house and the horde of beings under her care was a job that she, an “only child,” found beyond her grasp).

“Larry, don’t make the pies if it’s going to make you so upset.”

I managed to choke out these words, “But I like pie.”


*Buddhist path of avoiding extremes.

** The subject of whether to slather it with vanilla Häagen Dazs, whipped cream, or both will be treated in a separate post where it can be given the attention it deserves.

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I always enjoyed being up high.  Growing up, our house was taller than most in the neighborhood.  I would go out the second story window above our porch, crawl up to the peak, and sit till my mother came out and yelled, “Mrs. Griffin called and said, you were on the roof.  Get down!”

Sometimes I would climb up into the high thin branches of our maples and sway back and forth, pretending I was in the crows nest of a sailing ship.  I enjoyed the slight sense of precariousness as I moved back and forth in the supple branches surveying the neighborhood from above the rooftops.

I was the oldest son in a large family.  So I was the first to do many things, like jump from our house to the garage.  The gap wasn’t very great, but for a boy who didn’t want to crash onto the cement below, the three or four feet was a risk.  The leap back came later, the porch’s roof was higher than the garage.  There was many a day I’d sit there and weigh whether I could clear it.  Once my legs had grown a little longer, the leap back was not as intimidating.

Two other experiments off the garage roof worth mentioning were, jumping with an umbrella into our sandbox and, in the winter, sledding down into a snow pile in the adjacent alley.  Neither met expectations.

Years later a friend invited me to audit a climbing class being offered at Cal State Fullerton.  I said, why not, as long as it was safe.

That opened up a whole new world.  It turned out I had an inborn talent.  My mother had told stories about when I was a baby and would climb out of the crib and beat her back to the kitchen.  She tried tying my hands and feet together, to thwart me, however, I was still able to climb out.  Finally she tied me to the crib.  After hanging upside down for a while on the outside of the crib, the exercise lost its charm.

Since the climbing class I have climbed in many places including Tahquitz, Yosemite, the Shawangunks, and at Ragged Mountain here in Connecticut.  The appeal is still the same.  When I climb there still is that delicious sense of precariousness offset by the safety afforded by a rope.  There is also the puzzle, sometimes mystery, of the climb that needs to be solved by a collaboration between the body and mind.  Most rock problems are solved by an intuitive urge to move in a certain way.  Once the problem is solved, there is the view.

Before I was married, I climbed weekly, daily when I lived in Yosemite, but after, it has been once a year.  While the original ecstatic thrill of overcoming my deepest fears is gone–when I first started rock climbing, I would go through a threshold of immense fear and come out the other side feeling like a bird who has just learned to fly.  Now, however, my familiarity with the undertaking neither presents the fear nor the release, but I still experience the quiet satisfaction in the solution of the physical puzzle and a joy in arriving at the top.

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