A Thanksgiving Lesson

Fifteen years ago, my mother and I fixed our last Thanksgiving Dinner together.

Mom, who is our usual chef and organizer of fantastic feasts, declined hosting the celebration due to a painful hip.  Since my husband and I recently purchased our first home, I jumped at the chance to hold an All-Lori, All-About Me Thanksgiving Spectacle. Our aging Montgomery Ward table would creak under the weight of my homemade repast.

The day before the dinner, I invited Mom over to prep. Vegetables would be chopped, bread cubed, and chardonnay sipped.

Mom pulled up at noon in the family ¾-ton van. Limping heavily, she asked me to unload boxes. I swung open van doors to a staggering assortment of containers. I should not have been surprised. Mom’s approach to everything is militaristic—a task to conquer and subdue. Incredible detail goes into her perfect dinners.

Box one contained two quarts of crystal clear turkey stock for gravy. Formulated from organic turkey necks, gizzards, and her proprietary bouquet garni, Mom detailed its production and the how to achieve the broth’s jewel-like clarity. I discretely poured my murky, gritty broth into our dog’s dish, making a mental note that furious and prolonged boiling of animal parts is better suited to making glue than gravy.

Mom’s second box held her seasoning blends. Handpicked and hand mixed, the aroma evoked decades of Quaker Thanksgiving pasts.  Generations of women before us used these same herbs, perhaps even diced and rubbed with the same fastidiousness.   Butter, margarine, and two kinds of cooking oil nestled in the third box. I smiled, remembering Mom teaching me about the properties of cooking oils. Peanut oil is flavorless and rarely smokes. Butter needs special attention lest it burns.  I make a mental note to scoop my recently charred onions into the compost pile.

Box four held folded parchment paper and ancient copper cookware. “Always buy quality,” Mom reminded me, “Good equipment means good cooking.”

I opened box five, a 12-gallon metal-hinged storage container. Mom’s bundled cutlery collection shared space with her favorite chopping blocks and a hodgepodge of, plates, dishes, and 1970’s Tupperware. Mismatched measuring cups and favorite stirring spoons protruded from items wrapped in decades-old (but immaculate!) dishtowels.  As I hauled in a sixth box (Favorite frying pan! Gargantuan whisk! Metal bowls I remember from first grade! ), I felt overwhelmed by the Mom-stuff, crowding my newly appointed Dollar Store kitchen. Was the idea of post-Thanksgiving washing and packing up thirty years of loved kitchen supplies daunting? Not as much as feeling small and un-hostess-like.

I equipped Mom’s cooking station, according to detailed directions. Each instruction rendered me younger and younger until at last, I was six years old. My broth sucked. My onions burned. My spices stank. How could I host such a special event? Tension stirred my shoulders, but remembering my real age, I poured us each a glass of wine. Conviviality resumed.

Back to following instructions, I handed Mom her largest cutting board delicately wrapped in a pillowcase that once belonged to my grandmother.  Mom unmasked it with a musical “Tada!”

I cringed.  Satan’s unsavory, punched-out-by-Jesus incisor would have looked more wholesome.  An abundance of crisscrossing knife marks etched and blackened its putrid yellow surface. Mom, noting my grimace, reminded me that her chopping block was quite sanitary since she microwaves it daily. “Bleaching your chopping block,” she said, “ruins the taste of the food you cut on it.” The knowing twinkle in her eye tells me she is teasing–I disinfect with swathes of Tilex Mold & Mildew Remover with Bleach, which she finds revolting.

Mom launched into her chopping ceremony with a knife sharpening ritual (she also brought her sharpening kit). I washed veggies and used the food processor to mince Vidalia onions for my famous green chile cranberry sauce. My mechanical dicing scandalized mom, who discussed it with our dog Misty (“Food processing destroys the cellular structure of the onions, Misty!”).  I joined Mom at the cooking station, with my super-ultra-white bleached cutting board.

Mom’s freshly sharpened knives gleamed before her. She described the particulars of her favorite cutting tools selected to optimize the paring, chopping, dicing and trimming of specific ingredients for tomorrow’s meal. When Mom sensed me drifting off, she addressed Misty. Here is a knife for onions, a knife for celery, a knife for bread, a knife for me to stab myself in the head with, and so on.

The more she instructed, the more irritable I became.  I was the hostess! This was my meal to screw up or succeed. I wanted her to listen to me, be proud of me, and accept me and my burnt onions as good enough because I was her daughter. Of course, I didn’t say this. Instead, I snapped at her when she asked Misty why I forgot to buy shallots.

“I didn’t forget them, Mom! I burned the shallots along with the onions,” I said, showing her my pan of shame.

Mom pursed her lips and eyed Misty, but wisely stayed silent.  I huffed around the kitchen for a bit, until I noticed Mom and Misty regarding me with amused affection. I shook my head and laughed, meeting Mom’s warm eyes.  She laughed, too and Misty dashed around the house in celebration.  An unspoken peace presided. Mom praised my green chile cranberry sauce, and I offered her my special nut-chopping knife.  Compliments flowed. With her guidance, we served an excellent meal.

As I look back, I realize I missed what was happening. Mom was passing the torch to me. I became the maker of Thanksgiving Feasts, and Mom was showing me how to do it right. She packed up her whole kitchen with delicate care. She assembled ancestral herbs spices and took her time to walk me through it step by step. I was so enamored by the thrill of being the host; I forgot the tradition, deliciousness, and my dear mothers place in our family history.

Mom and I now live 2,000 miles apart, so we don’t cook together any longer. Her lessons, however, are still with me. I burn onions and dry out the turkey, but now these misadventures are funny stories we share. Maybe the biggest lesson I learned was to accept myself as imperfect and know that I am loved.

Fruit Souls

When he was five, my son decided that apricots had souls. His spiritual journey began the day Lull Farm had a sale on fresh apricots. Their unblemished perfection reminded me of the two immense apricot trees that grew in my childhood backyard. These fruit powerhouses kept Mom busy making jams, cobblers, yogurts, and every conceivable confection. Even our dogs harvested apricots, navigating the inner branches to reach choice fruit. Summer wasn’t official until I collected the first pit-filled scat from our scrubby lawn.

To make my favorite treat, fruit leather, Mom boiled apricots into a paste in a two-day marathon. The sweet, almost tropical aroma clung to Naugahyde chairs and bead curtains for weeks. Thick, sticky apricot goop got everywhere, and I licked spoons and fingers until my stomach grumbled ominous warnings.  My son deserved a taste of that glorious tradition, so I purchased a few quarts of fruit.

At home, I cleared the table to make a dramatic presentation to him. Like my mother before me, I offered an apricot to him and asked him to admire its beauty:

“Feel its soft fuzz? Soft, like velvet. Like a horse’s snout. See its colors? Yellow-orange, orange, and pinkish-red? Smell it, almost like a peach…”

“Now, take a bite,”

Liev blinked, his eyes filled with tears.

He shook his head.

“I can’t.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too beautiful. I cannot bear to kill it. I feel sorry for it.”

Even though I followed the script that won me over as a child, it did not work for Liev. He is a child who loves the fragile and defenseless — a rescuer of slugs, earthworms, and pill bugs.  He understood that fruit is likewise helpless. So, his apricot friend rested on our kitchen table until it shrunk and moldered. “Fruit have souls,” Liev stated as he chose a sunny spot for an apricot grave. He buried it with a song, hoping for a baby tree to grow from its seed.

Winter friends, circa 2015.

As  he grew older, Liev adopted occasional fruits and vegetables. Anxiety and stress triggered bouts of fruit hoarding. Perhaps he longed to preserve order in the universe by saying, “No, not this one!” After missing three weeks of fourth grade for an infected finger, a family of winter squash moved into his bedroom. Our new guests became bedtime story celebrities, offering sage advice about taking antibiotics and returning to school.

Liev, savior of produce, is also a champion of spiders.  His affection sprang from toddlerhood when I taught him that capturing and releasing spiders is better than eating them.  Saving spiders became a public affair when Liev turned six. At a nearby Rite-Aid, he chased a swift wolf spider across an expanse of white linoleum near a checkout. Confused patrons and employees scattered as he corralled the wriggling creature on to a sales circular. Shrill squeals erupted from the gathered crowd as the wily spider escaped twice on its journey outside.

So, our home is Halloween-ready year-round. Plump arachnids perch in corners, their children unafraid of newspaper swats. Ghostly wisps of deserted webs remain intact until we are confident the occupants are deceased. If malaria and cholera did not petrify him, Liev would fling doors and windows wide open so spiders could feast on neighborhood mosquitoes and houseflies.

Which brings me to the Cupcake Incident.

Remember Liev’s extended absence? Well, his return day fell on the class Halloween party. An unsuspecting parent hosted the party with a Pinterest inspired activity. She handed out pretzels, chocolate cupcakes, and mournful candy eyes to make “Spider Cupcakes.” Liev was so thrilled to make his a little spider that he stabbed half the pretzel legs deep into the cake and broke the rest. It was his spider! His spider named “Speeder.”

Then his classmates began to eat their spiders. While the details of his outburst are sketchy, it was epic enough for me to pick him up early.  Not only did he shout, “No, no, no you’re killing the spiders! You made them! How could you!” but he also and tried to rescue the spider cupcakes by plucking them from his peer’s hands. Paraeducators appealed to his sweet tooth to tame his uproar, “These spiders are for eating Liev, they are delicious! Yum!” Bad idea. Tears arrived in torrents, “I don’t wanna eat my Speeder! No! No! Don’t make me eat him! I LOVE HIM!”  Red-faced and tearful, staff escorted him to the nurse’s office, promising that he did not have to eat his cupcake nor watch others eat theirs.

Liev’s upset vanished in a quiet setting with quiet words:

“Liev, the other children don’t see the spiders as real. I know spiders are special to you, and you do not need to eat yours. You can take him home and keep him for as long as you like.”

Some compassion and a way to control a situation that caused big emotions was what he needed. After school, when we walked to the car,  he wiped away still-falling tears and said, “Mama, it’s okay for the other kids to eat their spiders, but we should keep this one forever.”  To this day, the spider lives tucked away atop the kitchen cabinets—a testament to the durability of grocery store baked goods and one boy’s love.

Epilouge

At twelve, Liev shrugs when I remind him of the Cupcake Incident:

“My brain understood that Speeder was not real, but the thought that he could get hurt was huge. I still worry about hurting helpless creatures. I even feel sorry if I smoosh a banana. It’s an OCD thing. Some people wash their hands. I want to rescue things.”

The voice of OCD csounds like the voice of your conscience urging you to do the right thing. Liev and I bear the crush of this righteousness upon our brows; a forever voice in our ears that calls to us to be virtuous, to do no harm, and to protect the weak.  While care and responsibility are traits precious to the human condition,  balancing scrupulosity is hard work. Liev is off to a wonderful start!

Crisis Across the Street

Scientists shower us with studies emphasizing the negative effects of isolation. Mental health declines. Heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes flourish. Meanwhile, my husband marvels over the health and wellness of coworkers involved with churches and clubs. I wince, imagining rooms full of chatty, optimistic people, dazzling us with blue-white smiles and small talk. We are introverts and keeping up with more than a few people at a time exhausts us.

So, we are the neighborhood family who keeps to themselves. We dispense cordial waves, check the mail at midnight, and blacken our house every single Halloween. Because we thrive on the information we glean in solitude, we watch instead of talk to gather data and plot future conversations.

Across the street from us live the Smiths. Juan and Maria are a decade older than us with grown children and a love for their lawn and garden. Lean and muscular, Juan resembles a petite Jason Statham. Every other day, he mows his grass and lavishes fertilizer on innumerable potted plants.  The beauty of their property is not their only gift. As Maria and Juan putter about, legions of dog walkers and affable neighbors swing by to shower them with compliments. Their driveway is a soup kitchen of hospitality—open to all and fully nourishing.

Sometimes we do step across the street. Twice a year when birthday balloons float above their mailbox, we give happy hugs.  I deliver a joke I looked up on google, like “Now the birthday candles cost more than the cake!” When offered a beer, we excuse ourselves and skitter home to watch festivities from behind our curtains.

We adore the Smiths for more than “the mere exposure effect.” What they do with their days charms us: driveway barbeques, bike rides in matching hoodies, and games of fetch with their big floppy mastiff.  

Utter shock shook me when I peeked out for my daily snoop and saw an ambulance and fire engine, lights flashing. Adrenaline-soaked blood shot to my legs; I could have pushed the ambulance to a hospital faster than any driver. As anxiety squeezed my throat closed, I paced until they brought Maria out on a stretcher. I gaped through the curtains as Maria’s contorted, pale face lolled.  Juan whisked a sheet before her, presumably to shield her from view.

I left my tiny peephole, loath to impede on their private moment. Trembling and tearful, I sat on the bed racing to put together a picture of what happened. Was this a heart attack? A stroke? A mental health crisis? What was so awful Juan had to conceal her? How could I help? Distraught, I called my husband at work. He reassured me that Maria was getting the help she needed and not to worry.

Later that day, when Juan came home, I slipped over to ask if Maria was okay.  Juan disclosed that Maria had been experiencing worsening vertigo for the past few weeks and was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear. In Maria’s case, this was caused by tiny calcium deposits rolling around her inner ear disturbing her balance. When she woke up, the vertigo was so intense she could not make it to the bathroom without vomiting or toppling over. Juan called 911. To block the sunlight, which added to her dizziness, Juan held up the sheet when the paramedics wheeled her outside.

As Juan explained that Maria’s condition was benign, relief rushed through me. She would be released after positional manipulations moved her ear stones. Since my mom had been through a similar ordeal, I understood what Maria was going through. Flowers and food were in order.

A week later, Maria and I shared hugs and warmth as she told me firsthand how disturbing her vertigo attack was. Could you imagine being so disoriented that you don’t have the mental resources to fear for your life? Re-orienting her brain after her episode took a great deal of strength, she said. “I just can’t think or answer questions. All my energy goes to feeling level, balanced.” I hugged her and dabbed at a tear.

More heartfelt words were exchanged and I let her go to rest. Her example left me feeling strong and appreciated. In her driveway, Maria and I could conquer existential fears, support our children, and handle any crisis.

Months have passed and we still spy on the Smiths. They spot our creased curtains with a smile. Are we really so isolated, so different? Community and connectedness are unique for everyone. We can be healthy and feel loved from behind our curtains.

Losing a Pet in an Autistic Household

When our beloved seventeen-year-old cat was dying, Liev, our autistic son, reacted thus:
“Oh. So, then we’ll get a new kitty.”
No emotional depth. No concern. No sadness.

This did not fool us.

Kitty Pearl filled our son’s daily imaginings. Wobbly scratching posts and sinister-looking grooming contraptions were built in her honor. He wrote her sentimental “I-love-you-kitty” letters and taped kitty-centric schedules near her water bowl. Homemade Kitty Forts stretched across rooms and cluttered staircases.

Then there were lists. Page after page of numbered instructions pertaining to the cat:

  1. Pet kitty gently.
  2. Add ice cubes to fresh water.
  3. Brush with the fur.
  4. No pestering.

Liev needed to organize his interactions with Pearl, not just to remind him of his duties but also to cope with the delicious and abhorrent impulse to pull her tail.

Pearl’s declining state preoccupied Liev later that evening. He spread inky equationed papers on the bed and announced that his calculations showed Pearl would live until August 4, 2014. Propelled with anxious, hyperkinetic energy, he expounded: “The next day (hop), Pearl will be cured (hop) and returned to live with us forever (hop, flap, twist, jump).” I nodded and replied, “I hope so.”

The Sunday before Pearl passed, Papa suggested something different for their weekly project. He asked Liev if he would like to build Pearl a casket. Liev’s face whitened. “No burial,” he said, “Cremation only.” Within ten minutes, an atomic autistic meltdown consumed him. Books and tears flew. A hole in the woods behind us was too dark and ugly for her, he howled.

After an hour of outcry, he vanished into the computer room, asking not to be disturbed. He resurfaced with the creation to the left.

This Boardmaker sheet is a window into his mind. It translated the enormity of Pearl’s kidney failure into something concrete and measurable.

Like other autistics, he needed to anchor to the tangible before venturing into the realm of emotion.

Every few hours, he filled out a new worksheet and tacked it to the refrigerator. He helped her the way he knew best—with discrete bits of information recorded on paper.

We held a vigil for Pearl on her final day. Liev read her his favorite stories as I stroked her. He addressed her in the same sing-songy voice I reserve for sick days and jarring injuries. His imitation of my soothing strategies struck me. Autistic children retain more than we realize.

Papa came home early to sit with Liev while I took Pearl to the vet.  We did not disclose the ultimate purpose of the trip, to keep departure subdued. None of us copes well with strong emotion.

An hour into the appointment, Papa told Liev.

My cell rang as I finished tucking a homemade blanket around Pearl’s inert form. Sorrow weighed upon me so heavily, answering required unexpected resolve.

Initially, I mistook Liev for a shrill, unhinged octogenarian who dialed a wrong number. His hysterical voice rattled my cheap crackly phone:

“I know about Pearl.  Are you going to cremate her or bring her home? Is she dead? Are you going to bring her home? Is she dead? Will I see her dead body? Will you burn her on the charcoal grill? Is she dead? “

He pleaded for details about the cremation: where would it be, how long would it take, and could he keep her ashes in his room?  I squeezed out appropriate answers and hung up.

The significance of cremation finally occurred to me. Remains in our home were less of a transition than burial, which held a sad and somber finality.

Liev continued to call for reassurance. My cell chimed cheery tunes as I exited the vet’s office. He left five more voice messages and sent six emails before I arrived home to hugs, tears, and many, many lists.

The day after Pearl died, I thought of her constantly. Her absence seemed inexplicably more powerful than her presence; like when I lost my watch weeks ago. I never realized how often I checked the time until my empty arm reminded me. How sad the stripe of skin on my wrist registered emptiness more than presence.

Liev processed his grief with questions. The first wave concerned the minutia of biological death, followed by a shower of spiritual inquiries. At last, he asked how I felt. A grief inquisition ensued.  As if he knew emotion collapses me inward, Liev tugged and pulled each word out of me, like an invasive, but beneficial medical procedure.

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He led me through sorrow as if he were an expert. Each question I answered took me closer to peace and acceptance.  Perhaps all little askers of questions are armed with the tools to heal. Great sadness can come from passing, but grief is not a monster to slay. Grief means a life changed yours.

Months have passed. Pearl lives on in Liev, but not in a dark, sad way. She inhabits his imagination, her ghost flits by windows and lingers half-perceived in kitty-fictions and Liev-escapades. We welcome her as an addition to the family. To be spoken of and remembered.

Pearl may have died, but she’s in my heart.

She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.

Okay, she died, but she’s in my heart, yeah!

Pearl may have died, but she is in my shoe.

She’ll go when I do. Do what I do.

Okay she died, but she’s in my shoe, yeah!

Adapting to Family Illness

My Home

I prefer not to post vague references to personal events–I either share proudly or maintain privacy. Nevertheless, events occur that require delicacy to balance discretion and disclosure.

Last week I put my mother in a skilled nursing facility. Mom had hid her illness to protect Dad and me, but when her health took such a sudden and alarming decline, Egor and I flew to New Mexico to help.

Mom wanted to stay home, but we could not honor her request and keep my father safe as well. She agreed to the changes we needed to make and is content in her new place.

I do not know how long Mom will be with us, but I do know how much Dad needs us. During their 50 years of marriage, they have rarely parted for more than a few days.  Dad says the house is painfully empty without her.

I call Mom and Dad daily. Every month I will fly out.  A Quiet Week in the House will continue as a creative outlet, but I am scaling back on interactions to focus on family.

Thank you for reading my posts and sharing your thoughts and well-wishes. I look forward to connecting with you more in the future. Your visits  mean a great deal to me.

Warmest wishes,

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