“Rose & Dine” at The Liberty Rose

The Liberty Rose Bed & Breakfast, one mile from beautiful Colonial Williamsburg, in this historic Virginia corridor, is a charming peaceful place to visit. The highlight for me, when I am lucky enough to spend any time there, are the gardens that cover an acre of wooded land. Secret places to sit, read, meditate, write, flowering trees that scent the air, and beautiful ground flowers and vines that compete for notice are everywhere. It is like a wonderland. I have been friends for several years now with Mike Farrell, the assistant innkeeper/cook/gardener there, and one thing we love to do together is cook and then eat delicious food. I was so happy to learn during my latest visit that the very first “Rose & Dine Dinner”, a special package which adds a gourmet dinner highlighting local meat, herbs, and produce to the traditional Bed & Breakfast offering of the inn, had been scheduled. The lucky couple, celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary, were very excited, putting their trust entirely in Mike’s choices for the 5 courses plus 2 amuse-bouches.

We started early in the day with an inventory of Mike’s extensive vegetable, herb, and flower garden. Noting what was in peak condition for cooking, we then made our way to the grocery store to pick up a few more things, and wound up the morning at The Cheese Shop in Colonial Williamsburg’s Merchants Square. We taste tested a few choices (we had to – really we did) and chose a washed rind cow’s milk cheese with a little bit of a bite, a bit of a tangy lingering finish on the tongue to serve as the bones of the cheese course, and a much stronger, smellier piece of soft pungent sheep’s milk cheese just for us, then headed back to the inn to begin cooking.

The first thing we do is caramelize fresh figs in a fragrant syrup of dark molasses, and red wine. These figs are fresh from the tree, and actually drip juice when their delicate imageskin is broken. Picked just yesterday morning after chasing one of the two fawns away who visit daily, waiting for ripe figs to drop, they are ripened to perfection. While we pick, the squirrel who also claims ownership watches proprietarily from a short distance away. In the kitchen, after they are washed, I slice them in half. The inside is a deep coral pink, yellow tinged with chartreuse surrounding it. They are sweet and soft and absolutely delicious. I scoop the fig halves up with my hands and then into the sweet liquid, and set it to simmering. It bubbles away for an hour or so, gradually becoming thicker and darker, sweeter and more fragrant, reducing down to a thick syrup, dark amber in color and complex in flavor. A shared taste tell us they will be perfect. I take them off the burner, spoon them into a bowl and set them aside to cool.

Mike’s task is to make the harissa for the beef. Harissa is northern African in origin; a wet spice paste, rubbed on the surface of the meat before roasting, made of toasted caraway seeds, smoked cumin seed, tomato paste, sugar, kosher salt, cracked black peppercorns, Sambal Olek, IMG_8850olive oil, powdered chilis, and of course whole garlic cloves. Much of the complex flavor of the harissa is due to the toasting of the caraway, and then smoking the cumin seeds in the pan with the lid on. The ingredients are all combined, and whirled together in the food processor. The flavor is deep and spicy and complicated, but open as well, asking For inclusion with something that balances it out. Like roasted meat. Like the local organic grass fed tri tip roast of beef that Mike has warming up on the counter. No marinade necessary. With the smell of the harissa in our noses, and the taste we are obligated to take on our tongue, we choose dishes and goblets, napkins and centerpiece, and make notes for assembly, timing, garnishing, and service of the courses.

Mike and I love to cook together. We read each other so well. We both know what needs to be done, and when, and can jump in and do it without any discussion, all our efforts oiled and geared to smooth accomplishment of the end goal – wonderful food – something we both understand and venerate. We taste and inhale and adjust and augment and try to bring it all forward as far as it can go. Until the next time. When we try to take it farther, after evaluation and research and reading and most importantly, eating and tasting anything and everything. It’s a wonderfully enjoyable mission to which we have devoted ourselves, and we both find joy in working on this together. And we laugh. And we drink wine while we cook, and we dance around the small kitchen, sliding by each other, avoiding collision, moving pots and hot pans from oven to burner, rapidly chopping spices and kale and onions and other ingredients, bringing good and interesting food to the level of a gift for our guests. I’m honored to be a part of this inaugural dinner.

The first dish we prepare is a little starter of cold dill soup. It’s a hot day, and this is just an introduction to the rest of the meal – both the flavors and the ambience we hope to provide. Mike waits until the last minute to cut the fresh herbs from the garden. imageThis small serving of soup meant to be picked up and sipped directly from the delicate handmade Colonial Williamsburg “bullet dish”, smaller than a cupcake paper. We hope this little informality encourages our guests to relax and enjoy their anniversary, instead of feeling that they must be stiff and formal, even when the table is beautifully set, and the food beautifully and carefully presented. Food should be enjoyed and we hope they will as much as we do. The chilled soup is garnished with a fennel flower, still warm from the garden sun.

As I’ve learned while watching my son, a chef who has served huge groups of people complex dishes with wonderful organization and attention to detail, you don’t rest once a imagecourse is served. As soon as our guests are enjoying their soup, we assemble the cheese course. Long thin slices of the cheese are arranged on a plate, and the caramelized figs spooned out over them. A bit of the syrup dotted onto the plate. We garnish this course with some rose petals separated from the roses in the gardens. A rose integrated into the dinner seems entirely appropriate and a nod to the place where it is being prepared and served. We nibble on the rinds we trim from the cheese, and eat a fork full of figs from the pan, find the combination delicious, and then it’s time to prepare the salad course.

The salad is simple. We start with a base of baby arugula – slightly bitter, slightly nutty; a welcome cleansing astringency after the cheese and figs – some deep green baby spinach, trimmed segments of an orange dripping with juice, feathery shreds of locally gathered Lion’s Mane mushrooms, thin slices of baby sweet onions, and a scattering of purple imageconeflower petals from the flower garden. We want the components of the salad both to stand on their own, and work together as a whole, and don’t want it overwhelmed by an oily vinegar dressing. Mike asks for my thoughts, channels his good Argentine sensibilities, and makes a simple dressing of good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and I drizzle it lightly over the prepared plates. It’s a simple enhancement, and not a mask. A quick sprinkle of plum-infused toasted sesame seeds, brought back in our suitcase from a wonderful spice shop in Annecy, France, and the salad goes to the table. We eat a couple quick bites ourselves from the ingredients that wouldn’t fit on the plates for the guests – sadly, the oranges are gone – and agree that it is really good. And then we’re on to the pasta course.

In Mike’s late summer garden at The Liberty Rose, basil runs wild. And the logical conclusion when cooking from this extensive garden is to make a big batch of pesto with that beautiful basil. But at this time of the imageyear, how do we make that something special and new? Mike suggests a “Rough Pesto,” and I think that sounds perfect. We begin by roasting some whole garlic in the oven, and then lightly heating some olive oil. Once the garlic is roasted, I squeeze the hot golden cloves out of the skins. With a fork I mash the garlic and whisk them into the warm oil. It smells heavenly, and I set it aside to infuse. We toast whole pignoli nuts in the oven, and Mike heats olive oil in a cast iron skillet for the gnocchi. He buys his handmade gnocchi at the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, and the difference in the flavor and texture from grocery store gnocchi is remarkable. He has already picked fresh Pesto Basil from the garden, and I remove the tiny leaves from the stems. Rather than boiling it, Mike pan sears his gnocchi in olive oil until it is hot and just taking on some color. It’s a good way to serve this course without enduring the heat of a big pot of boiling water on top of the stove, plus the flavor is different and much more interesting. Smoky, a little charred, and slightly nutty. Delicious. A handful of the hot gnocchi goes down on the plate. A drizzle of the garlicky oil goes over it. Some of the toasted pignolis, a scattering of freshly shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and a generous handful of the Pesto Basil leaves. A sprinkle of coarse salt and a grinding of black Tasmanian Pepper, also courtesy of that magical spice shop in Annecy, a gorgeous Thai Basil blossom for garnish, and the pasta course goes out. We have made a third plate for us to eat, and there is no sound other than mutual “Oh my god”s when we tuck into it. I may never make pesto in the food processor again. The textures of the gnocchi, the crunchy nuts, the whole leaf basil and the salty granular parmigiano all work together to make us very sorry indeed when our plate is empty. Absolutely delicious.

While the beef finishes roasting and rests under a tent of foil, we serve the second little amuse-bouche. A bit of a break between the gnocchi and the meat course, it gives our guests a chance to sit back, talk a little, breathe, pour a little more wine, and relax, because the best dinner isn’t just about the food. It’s about being with others and sharing and connecting. Time must be given for that as well. We scoop out small spoonfuls of goat’s milk ice cream, also purchased fresh from the Williamsburg Farmer’s Market, and spoon a drizzle of Russian rose petal preserves over the top. The combination of the tangy sweet earthiness of the ice cream with the delicately sweet and floral flavor of the rose petals preserved in a light sweet jelly, garnished with fresh chocolate mint leaves is swoon-worthy and Mike and I inhale the little bowlful we have prepared for ourselves. Delicious, and not nearly enough to satisfy us. That’s why there is no picture of this beautiful little treat. We couldn’t wait.

The meat course is ready now for plating and serving. We uncover the roast, done perfectly medium rare, and slice it up. The harissa has made a crust on the roasted beef, and also melded with the meat juices on the bottom of the baking pan. I reheat that on top of the stove, breaking up the big slices of red onion, now caramelized in the meat juices, that served as the roasting rack, and add a slug of redIMG_8861 wine to the sizzling pan. Steam boils up as the wine flash boils and deglazes the pan. The smell is absolutely sublime, and the thick dark liquid now simmering in the pan will be quickly reduced, and spooned over the meat on the plates along with some of the roasted onion. We have already prepared and have set on the back burner of the stove a sauté of a chiffonade of fresh baby kale in olive oil, with garlic, onion, coarse salt, black pepper, vermouth, and pancetta. The vermouth and the garlic balances out and tempers the strong flavor of the kale, and the crispy browned bits of pancetta add a wonderful salty bacon-y note. The result is savory and full, and stands up well to the beef with the spicy harissa crust. We put a spoonful of the kale on the plate beside the beef. The final touch is a couple slices of fresh cold heirloom tomatoes, garnished with some of the Pesto Basil, and some ground Tasmanian pepper.

If you have only ever eaten red beefsteak tomatoes, or grocery store tomatoes, you owe it to yourself to seek out a grower of heirloom tomatoes (or grow some yourself) and see just how delicious a tomato can be. The flavors are so much better than those mass-produced tomatoes, no matter how red they might be. We have prepared a plate for us as well, and as soon as we can, we sample everything we’ve just served. It tastes amazing. And the response of the guests is extremely gratifying. Being told you have just served people the best and most adventurous food they’ve ever eaten, when they are also food lovers and seek out interesting and exciting dining experiences wherever they go, is deeply satisfying. Cooking for appreciative friends and family (or ourselves) is one thing. Cooking good food for paying guests is quite another. We are so happy they have enjoyed our work.

Because this day has been hot and humid, our guests decided to eat dinner inside, but with the setting of the sun, a small breeze has sprung up, and they have asked to have dessert and tea in the garden. The gardens of Liberty Rose, with little white lights strung over the low table and comfortable rocking chairs is the perfect place to end the day, and surrounded by the cool greenery of ferns, trees, and blooming potted flowers, they enjoy some moments of quiet conversation while we put the finishing touches on the dessert for the evening.

Mike has chosen a traditional Scottish layered dessert called a cranachan. Earlier in the day, hazelnuts were roughly chopped and placed in a mixing bowl along with two cups of IMG_8865grated bittersweet chocolate. Mike toasted organic steel-cut oats in the oven until it was golden brown and hot, and then added to the mixing bowl. As Mike stirred in the hot oats, a miraculous melting and melding occurred, and the bittersweet chocolate coated the nuts and the oats. We set it aside until this moment, when we retrieve the bowl from the pantry, and break up the mixture into crunchy clusters of nutty chocolate. Meanwhile, Mike whips heavy cream into white pillows, and then beats in crème fraîche, making it taste amazingly buttery and impossibly rich. A little whisky is folded into the whipped cream – a traditional part of the recipe – and then the components layered into a tall glass. The result, garnished with a big fat fresh blackberry, is absolutely rich tasting and delicious, yet light and satisfying. It isn’t overwhelmingly sweet, and is just right to finish off the meal we have served. We agree we will never eat whipped cream again unless it also includes crème fraîche. And whisky.

It was such an honor for me to be part of this dinner, part of the preparation, part of the celebration of a milestone anniversary for a very nice couple I didn’t even meet until just before dessert was served. Their gratitude and happiness was soul-satisfying, and the best reward for our hard work. The chance to plan and execute this intricate dance with a friend who feels the same about food and cooking and feeding people was so much fun, despite our bone-deep exhaustion. Food is primal. The connection that established between cooks and the people they feed has the potential to be wonderful, amazing, enriching. But the eating is only part of the experience. When you care deeply about food, the preparation of that food is a meditation. The serving of that food is a gift. The preparation of food, the sharing of food – that is the real celebration. I so look forward to my chance to dance this dance again.

 

 

 

 

Be a Star (To Matthew)

Be a Star (To Matthew)

….From where you are
To where I am now
Is its own galaxy
Be a star
And fall down somewhere next to me….

Pretty Things by Rufus Wainwright

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Photo by Cora Lynn Deibler

You were afraid of us when we met you. I was newly off to college when my father was your professor. You were a student who played the piano with more power and technique and expression than any student of his I’d ever heard. That he’d ever heard. You yourself were nearly silent, and you held yourself in so closely, so controlled, so contained, away from the piano you barely moved. My father was always attuned to his students; to the whole student, not just the pianist in the student. He thought you needed a friend, and support, and he began to talk to you, and to invite you home with him for dinners. He was afraid you weren’t eating. He was afraid you were so desperately unhappy you might harm yourself. He began to talk to you, and my mother did too, even though you didn’t yet talk with them. Your trauma was deep, like a dog that’s been beaten over and over, and so comes to expect nothing more than more beatings. They spoke quietly to you and moved quietly around you. They offered you good hot food served in a comfortably untidy kitchen, lit by candles for evening supper. They listened to music and laughed with each other while they ate, and spoke to you, even though you did not yet feel brave enough to answer them. But over the weeks, as you realized there was no judgement of you coming from them, as you relaxed your shoulders and your back and you allowed your heart to open up just a little, they reached out their hands and drew you in and you began to laugh with them too. And your story began to come out. And you became, over time, part of our family. Because everyone needs family to love them.

In time, my father asked students who were having problems three questions: Are there problems at home? Are you afraid you drink too much or have a problem with drugs? And the third question, which was often the root to affirmative answers to the first two — Do you think you might be gay? What right does a teacher have to ask these questions of a student? This isn’t what their parents are paying him to do. Stick to piano lessons. But to the student who can’t form the words, even to themselves, it is a relief to have someone they respect and trust form the words for them and do so in a friendly way, with an offer of help with navigation of the new landscape. A relief to the student whose parents have sent them off to college and told them they can stay in school, that they’ll continue to pay for their education so they can have a livelihood, because they’re not cruel for Christ’s sake, but please don’t think you can come home ever again with that in your heart. You have a little brother or sister – who knows what you’d do to them, and what about your grandparents, what will they think? And the neighbors, and people at church, and where have we gone wrong and why why why are you doing this to us, never mind that you’ll spend eternity in hell. How can a child then show up for Christmas, begging to be let in?

Your parents were unequipped for life outside the narrow rural confines of their harsh and nasty Christianity. Your parents, from the tangled depths of their ignorance and confusion, their angry grief at the death of their lifelong assumptions,  made it known you weren’t welcome in their house. Their God told them you were evil and needed to change. And not just change, but repent, and repent with fervor. But they were wrong. They were the evil that damaged you from the get go. Your life afterward was a constant conflict of running away fast and hard, while also trying to find a way, any way, to fit back in. My father, not your own, taught you to tie the necktie you borrowed from him before a recital. My mother, not your own, fed you and hugged you. My parents, not your own, made sure you had money for groceries and someone with whom to talk over the decisions that have to be made in a newly blooming life. You considered changing your last name to ours. And we would have welcomed it, we loved you so deeply.

And how you bloomed, with your courage and determination, and my family as your touchstone. You traveled and met people, and lived in cities all over the country. You repaid my parents a hundred times over with your love and a soaring ride in a glider over Long Island for their birthdays.You took them to the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve Gala with you; my father, in his tuxedo, and my mother, nervous she wouldn’t look right, in a black suit and black suede pumps. She wore diamonds in her ears and the pearl necklace she wore for her wedding. They saw Die Fledermaus sung on the most famous opera stage in the country, and at the elaborate dinner afterward, rubbed elbows with Tony Randall and Kitty Carlisle Hart. You brought us to your home in Santa Fe, and sent us off on a trip to the Grand Canyon, booking hotel rooms and steam locomotive tickets for the ride to the rim of the canyon because that’s what my children would enjoy. And we did too. But you couldn’t come with us because by then you were very sick, and had found out you were HIV positive.

And we were so afraid for you. It was that time before really effective treatment, but new diagnoses were coming thick and fast, and the stigma of a positive status was still damaging. Not quite the death sentence of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but one had to be so aggressively proactive to obtain good treatment. Under the New Mexico stars, we sat out in the soft night by the fire, talking, me holding your warm hand. Loving you. Telling you. Not wanting to leave you. We were your family, and we were glad to be with you. Together is what we do best. Your sisters, by then, had pushed the rantings of your parents to the background, and rallied to your side. I was so happy for you. When we had to leave, they were arriving to help you. To join hands and solder that circle of strength for the murky future. You and your three sisters.

Your second oldest sister is a veterinarian and made of tough rural stock, and once performed minor surgery on herself. She gets things done and has managed to build a loving family of her own despite her parents’ parenting. Not satisfied with the treatment you were getting in Santa Fe, your kidneys failing, she got you an appointment at Johns Hopkins. You and your three beloved dogs flew to Baltimore on your friend’s private plane. And it was there that your aggressive lymphoma was diagnosed and where we gradually came to terms with your almost certain death. We visited you. So did your father and his new meekly poisonous wife. He told you you were going to hell, and why, so you’d know and it wouldn’t be a surprise when you got there. While he talked to his son this way, his wife nodded and smiled her support of his cruelty. After they felt they’d scared you enough to reawaken the self-hatred you’d spent years trying to sweep from your life, they produced a handful of religious pamphlets for you to read that would save you. Ignoring his wife completely, you found the strength to tell your father to leave and not to come back. That was good for you. You went to live with your sister and her husband in her big sunny house with your dogs snuggled in around you, and we could visit you while you grappled with chemotherapy and radiation and the brutal effects of antiretrovirals begun too late. It was a gift for me and for my parents to have you close. To be together.

There were a few weeks over Christmas that year, your favorite holiday, where the doctors told you you were free of cancer. You gained weight and felt good and played with your dogs and we began to hope that this was permanent. You missed your piano and Santa Fe. You missed the house you were building there, and the fireplace carved into the adobe, painted pale green and dusted with chips of mica that reflected the light of the flames so the whole thing sparkled like an enchanted corner. You and the dogs flew home. But by early January, you were weak and confused. Your sisters all went to be with you as the cancer roared back, peppering your brain and your spine, your hip, and your lungs. It was over long before you finally gave up, with the three of them holding you close in your big bed, along with the dogs who refused to leave your side. Looking out at the snow topped mountains in the distance, they read aloud our many messages of love and caring to you as you slipped into days of twilight sleep and finally died. You were only 31 years old and it was far far too soon.

I cried every day for months. Missing you. Not daring to admit or wanting to know I would never see you or hug you again. I hoped with a bone deep fury I rarely feel that your mother and father would forever be tormented with grief and guilt for how they had treated you, and for making the brief life you had so largely miserable. My parents were gutted by your death, you fully their son, but bore it stoically. They spoke often of you and laughed at the many good memories they had. You were the godfather to my sweet middle boy, and my children’s vision of you was the fun uncle who brought them books about a family of slugs afraid of salt, and books about pooping, and who loved Edward Gorey. When your sister had a baby boy, she named him Matthew, after you.

A year and a half later, we all flew to San Francisco for your memorial service with your sisters and their families. Your parents “couldn’t make it,” and I was glad they weren’t there. They didn’t deserve this last chance to be with you and to see you off. I went with my parents, my sister and her husband, my three children, and my husband. We stayed in Stinson Beach, a cozy town tucked in on the coast north of the city. It was my first view of the PDSCF0025acific Ocean, and my eyes filled with tears when I saw it. I knew you loved this place, and I wondered if you also stood here the first time, looking with tears in your eyes as you saw something so huge and so far away from where you grew up. From how you grew up. Did you ever believe then that you, a sensitive young gay pianist born in a rural wasteland that treasured nothing of what you were, would be in this place looking at this ocean with a family that loved you for exactly who you were? I wept to know that I would never stand there looking at it with you, holding your hand, we two country born Pennsylvania children, growing up so differently, but coming together into one life, in this place together.

We have no official permits. There are no funeral directors involved. You told your sisters to scatter your ashes on the westernmost point of land in Point Reyes National Seashore. All we have for this task is our love for you, some poems, some songs you liked, and you in your small wooden box, carved by your brother-in-law John, sanded and smoothed with love. We drove north from our houses on the foggy roads at sunrise to arrive at Chimney Rock before 7 am. What we are doing is illegal, and I know you’d have liked that. On the way there, we had to stop, as a herd of black and white dairy cattle crossed the rutted road. One stopped in front of our car and gazed at us with a deep black liquid look as her herd walked past her across the muddy road and disappeared into the fog lingering on the pasture. She looked at us for a long time. Still. Watching. Then she moved on. It was important and we were quiet in the car. You always liked cows, and liked the Point Reyes cattle as they wandered where they wanted, and people had to make way for them. We park our cars and walk a mile or so through the wind-beaten beach grass on a trail that leads out to the rocky point far above the ocean. The gray sky weighs on us, and I’m afraid, and dreading the deep wound of grief this morning is going to scrape open again. The wind blows off the ocean, cool and damp, but the fresh salt smell is exciting to me, so used to being landlocked. I think this is probably how you felt too when the smell of ocean filled your nose and blew your hair straight back, and it was clean and damp and scoured your heart of the stains left there from your struggles. I needed some scouring myself. I dared to hope that maybe I could find something in that wind from you to soothe that weeping wound in my core that doggedly refused to heal.

DSCF0084_1024We sat all together on the grass. A sea bird circled up above us, gray and white against the soft rolling gray of the sky and the fog, occasionally calling, soaring, diving down, way down, to touch the water, then winging back up, high over us again. Staying there with us. Your brother-in-law Jim, who always loved you, speaks to us, and we remember some of the good times. Times when you made us laugh. When we did things together; picnics, swimming, camping, city visits, your love of nature, the wilder the better. We remember Matthew who was strong and healthy, and free of pain and confusion. Matthew, who loved to tease and could always make us laugh. Matthew, who played the piano with passion and tenderness, pulling magnificent volume and gorgeous soaring music from the instrument with just his two hands and his big heart. And then we listened to music, the Indigo Girls, and that was when I started crying, and felt your absence most keenly. I knew for certain then, that this was our goodbye, our release of you. We truly never would see you again and now we’d have to keep you inside us, each on our own, to remember you. Such a fragile tenuous tie to you. Memories can be lost so easily, and are weak comfort when loneliness for you weighs me down. And while I desperately want freedom from this sadness that seems to have set up permanent housekeeping in my heart, I also never want to forget you.

The wooden box holding your ashes sat on the ground in front of us. Your sister brought a rock from home for your resting place. Your name was etched onto it, and the dates of your birth and of your death. We were each invited to gather up a handful of you, and take it to a place on that great jutting point of land high above the Pacific. A place we each felt was beautiful enough to hold you forever. I hesitated to touch you. I never had seen human ashes before, and wasn’t sure what they felt like. Dry and grainy, the coarse gray white dust with some larger ivory colored shards lay leveled in the box. I will never forget how you felt in my hand when I gathered you up. As I held you, and walked to the rocky edge to choose the right place for you, I thought to touch my finger to my tongue, to put a few grains of you into my mouth so you would be with me and in me forever, but I didn’t. Now I wish I had. I walked the edge of the cliff alone, my husband helping my children handle the emotions of this day. My parents standing together as they always have in everything. I was traveling my own path. I looked down at the heavy surf and saw a single sea lion rolling and diving in the blue gray water that glittered and shifted dully like a piece of polished labradorite. She stayed there by the rocks, looking up at us, maybe curious. Maybe knowing. I knew this was the place for me to put you. We each did this, choosing a place for our own reasons, on our own impulse, and parts of you were sprinkled everywhere in that big beautiful wild place. 

We stayed there with the quiet whooshing of the wind and the tide for a while, and then I knew it was time for me to leave and start down the path to the new life without you in it. I walked into the wind, salty, and eucalyptus scented, and it shushed past my ears with a quiet soothing sound. My footsteps were muffled by the cushioning grass. My tears dried and I took a shuddering breath. And then I heard my name. I turned, thinking my husband had caught up to me, but there was no one there. My heart began beating in my ears and all my senses were pinpointed on that sound, on my name in the wind. I looked around me. No one. I held my breath, knowing it happened, willing it to happen again. Above me, that gray gull was still circling, watching us leave this now sacred place, spread out, filing back to the car. All of us alone in our grief. I felt some comfort in my pain.

That day was now almost 15 years ago. And despite my fear, my memory of that moment hasn’t faded. I still miss you. I will miss you for the rest of my life. Every year, on August 13th, I send you a birthday thought, and every year, on January 29th, I remember the devastating pain the news of your death brought. I don’t think of you constantly anymore. Not even weekly. But there are times when something happens, something funny or ridiculous, or if I’m hiking, and the cedar-scented air is filling my nose, I think, “Matthew would have liked this.” When I’m with my family and we’re laughing, as we always are, we remember you and say to each other, “Matt would like this.” My middle son, your godson, is getting married in a couple of weeks, and I will surely think of you on that day, and wish you were there to celebrate with us. And sometimes when I’m running, my muscles loose and warm on a chilly misty day, when my mind is emptied out and relaxed and my music is turned down low, my breathing easy and rhythmic, I’ll feel you with me. And I’ll suddenly miss you with a sweeping wave of palpable awareness of you. And that moment is just for me, from you. You calling my name as the wind blows on my ears and a bird languidly circles in the sky over my head.

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Facing It. All Of It.

Her 6-yr old daughter assigns her super power to her as they play together at home: “Mommy, your super power is laundry!”  My friend tells me, “I knew then it was time for me to get a job. I had to show her I could do more than laundry.”

What is power in our day to day life, and why do many women who have it not realize it? Why do they discount it? Why do they wholly surrender it? And where in life do some of us become afraid of our power and bury it or neuter it? When does it become more important to get along by hiding the strength and command in our personae as thinking and feeling women than to shine comfortably, assertively? And how do we reclaim it when it’s been lost or seems beyond our reach? And is it weakness, and a betrayal of strength or the efforts of other women to gain it, if we choose to relinquish it ourselves?

Mothering is power, but in contrast to power in the business world, mothering power is silent, often unacknowledged, taken for granted, and sometimes is the phoenix rising from fear. When your child is sick or injured, using the adrenaline of the moment to overcome the panic, you use that surge of power to do anything to help your child. You ride that wave of empowerment to question, warn, and advocate. But when the crisis is past, does empowerment remain? Sometimes. But sometimes it is just what is needed at the moment, and then things return to how they were before the crisis. I watch my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister parent from a place of security and celebration, raising her two little brown daughters to own their difference, their beautiful warm dark skin, their glossy coiled hair, their black eyes, their strength. I see now that I parented sometimes fearful of my children’s enormous power and strong personalities. Sometimes, in place of helping them embrace it, mold it, teaching them to use it wisely, I tried to tamp it down, to get it under control because, frankly, their primitive strength frightened me.

I couldn’t see the turmoil their strength and determination raised in me for what it was: my fear of their power, and my fear of my own strength to meet it, because owning it might mean I’d be called upon to use it. And that meant even more conflict than usual. Then, it was easier to push it back and work at making my children conform. Strong children are resilient, however, and my strong children seem to have landed on their feet with commitment and good work ethic, and common sense. But I suffered. Agonizing uncertainty, shackled by fears of what other people would think, kept me from advocating for my children and celebrating them when I should have, despite the prevailing standards for appropriate behavior. And in parenting, there is little reinforcement from the children you’re trying to tame. They continue to push the envelope, to try to negotiate and bully their way to unlimited vistas of self-absorbed behavior, and you are never enough. That is what they’re meant to do. My strength was secondary, and I was often afraid to reach, to challenge, to speak out for myself, so how could I encourage my children to do that? And as they challenged me, I doubted myself and felt inadequate.

Part of the problem is that the acknowledgement that counts in modern society is monetary pay commensurate with power. And there is no pay in mothering that pays the bills. Mothers have no retirement accounts. Mothers don’t get raises, and can’t look forward to paid vacation. And I, and probably many other women, can’t fully believe in the power they have as mothers if there is no concrete validation from society. It can become a lonely place and the future is ill-defined and certainly terminal. Children grow up, and leave home, and the nest is empty. And then what? There’s no pension. There’s no retirement party.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with cranking out a great load of clean warm laundry, especially if that tattered blankie comes out warm and soft and smelling like love and home. But when your daughter thinks the apex of your power is laundry, well then, maybe it’s time for some adjustment. Mothering power, used wisely, produces strong, compassionate daughters and sons who know their strengths and can figure out how to use them. Mothering power empowers children to be proud and sure individuals. How you love your children, how you navigate obstacles in your life in front of your children, how you discipline and talk and laugh with your children (or don’t) teaches lessons. And often the lessons learned from those unconscious moments are far different than the words that come after “Now listen to me….” The potential for growth in those countless moments is unquantifiable. Little eyes and little ears soak it all in and true power is in realizing that and using it in love.

My niece, Lidiya, is a glorious 5-yr old girl. She glows with strength and command as proudly and unconsciously as she wears the vivid clothing she chooses for herself every day; as beautiful and wild as the thick twisty hair that she likes to feel flying back and forth when imageshe shakes her head. For her, power is a fact of life and it is completely and organically meshed with who she is. She uses it to be kind to others. To hug her friend, assuring her she will be back soon, and will play with her then. She uses it to accomplish things for herself, from scooping out her own forbidden ice cream cone late at night, to managing two big dogs like they are toys. And her command of them is so confident and self-assured, they both listen, even though they could knock her over and drag her around the yard. She uses it for determined tug-of-war with her sister, and negotiations with her parents. She uses it without hesitation to stand up for herself in a conflict. She uses it to wade in and stand up for her older sister in a conflict. She uses it to make her world as close to exactly how she likes it as possible every second of every day. It is potent and fierce, and she only has it about half under control. It propels her through life like a water slide, and shoots her out the bottom at the end of the day when she finally drops abruptly into sleep, exhausted. And how she loves every minute of that wild ride. Anyone who lives with Lidiya can only try to climb on and keep up, maybe providing a little parental tweaking along the way. Maybe she’ll even listen, and consider, but compliance is always up in the air, and entirely up to her. I admire her and her molten core of determination, and I think she’s taught me a lot. “Face your fears,” she advised me when she was 3. And now I repeat her wisdom to myself often.

I’ve had some power for the last 15 years; power attributed to me by virtue of my title of Director. Power granted to me by parents of the children in my preschool, power accepted by those parents as governing them as well. Most of the time. My position gives me the opportunity to formulate programming and curriculum. I am trusted to make changes as I see fit. I advise and alert according to my experience as a teacher. I laugh and reassure according to my experience as the parent of children grown up and gone. It still surprises me that adults listen to me about their children, and that they seek my advice. When I realize that parents are nervous to talk with me, I haven’t worn it comfortably; sure I haven’t earned it. But now I give myself a mental shake, and my rightful due. I’ve worked hard for decades, and listened. I’ve made many mistakes, learned from them, and been through enough trial and error that I am finally becoming comfortable in acknowledging success. It wasn’t until I embraced the knowledge that I am good at my job because I work hard at it, and care deeply about the outcome that I felt comfortable wearing that confidence on the outside, and really feeling it in my daily navigation. This is a confident assertion I can hear my Lutheran upbringing tsk-tsk-tsk-ing in the background: Never admit you got this. Never assume you’ve nailed it. Once you do that, your pride and Karma will sucker punch you in the gut and an epic failure is your certain and entirely deserved fate. The thing is, I don’t think I believe that anymore. I also know I couldn’t have made this assertion at any other time in my life, and that awareness came just in time. After a lifetime of self-deprecating denial, I think I’ve accepted the mantle of the power I have earned. And then, recently, it became time to use it. And that is a different exercise entirely.

Before my eyes, a good woman’s life and family were irrevocably changed by a freight train of power fueled by fear and incompetence. Rumors about her and her job were fabricated, whispered, and exaggerated. People in the church, once her family and her foundation, turned inquisitors. One issue rectified and corrected, another would slither in to take its IMG_5596
place. She saw no escape, and her fate was a foregone conclusion from the beginning, despite the hoops through which she obediently tried to jump to keep her job. Once you’re on the radar of a person who fears and must control, you never are free, and her every move was scrutinized and curtailed. So you are told where you may go to the bathroom. You are told what you will wear. You are told how you will spend your time outside of work. And in my fear for her, frustrated with my inability to relieve her pain, and disbelief that this could even be happening, I listened to Lidiya’s voice and faced my fears. Struggling to steady my shaking voice, I spoke out for her. I questioned the way she was being treated, and why, and it built and built, and then there began to be whispers about me. About my teaching. About my intentions. About my character. And that same power slowly began to pile up and rotate in another direction, toward me, and
 I couldn’t get out of its way when it touched down. It’s fingers reached into my home, my sleep, pressing me hard under the weight of its size and anger, while smiling at me on the face of it, and offering thoughts and prayers as a thin veneer of pious sop.

I wonder at the coincidence of this happening just as I am making peace with, and embracing my own strength. And what I saw and experienced bears out what I have always suspected. Power wielded from a place of fear and weakness is the most oppressive of all. It took several years of self-protection, looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing each communication and request for a meeting for the hidden message, the code. I was always wondering how it would certainly impact me down the road, revealed as finished and sealed and my compliance an assumption, regardless of the effect on me or what was entrusted to me. It took many months to outlast the hope that things might just work themselves out, and finally, at the breaking point, I knew some action was necessary. And as I began to push back, to disagree, and to question, not to acquiesce to pats on the head and being told I didn’t really understand, the pressure became more intense.

It was a time of long nights of lost sleep, grinding worry, what to say and what to leave unsaid. There was the risk to my job, my security, my happiness to consider. It was difficult meetings at which supremely difficult things had to be brought out and examined. It was anger turned on me, and frustration exploding, and feelings unavoidably affronted. But make no mistake. I don’t regret drawing the attention of that freight train of a tornado. There was no choice. It was my time to speak. And now, after some time passes, there is no muddy sediment on that resolve, and it still glitters; pristine, brilliant, and diamond hard.

The resolve of women who are determined, organized, and supportive of each other is an inspiring thing to see, and it’s even more inspiring to be part of it. Women, at their best, are strong and kind. They remember who their friends are, and when necessary, remember who their enemies are. Good secure women don’t hold grudges, but they do remember facts, and then act carefully and deliberately on those facts. They bring dark mucky packets of IMG_5115resentment and manipulation out into the light of day, air them out, and dry them, revealing what was kept hidden. And while it is exhilarating and satisfying to finally be acting instead of watchfully waiting, it is also searingly painful, and we have to acknowledge and manage the collateral damage. I can finally celebrate that strength. I can finally say yes, it is mine and I’ve earned it. I’ve used it to help people. I have used it for an unpopular cause that I knew was right and true, even though it was certainly the difficult way. I have made enemies that I know can’t, and probably won’t, forgive me for the first time in my life. The flip side of that, interestingly, is that for the first time in my life, the idea of having enemies doesn’t make my stomach churn. I am comfortable with the necessity for what we had to do. We all were. We rectified the situation without hysteria or drama. We faced our fears down, and discussed our concerns openly and thoroughly.

When the dust settled, people rearranged themselves into new alliances, decisive action was taken, and a theatrical martyrdom was assumed like a heavy velvet cloak to deflect and obscure the real unowned ugliness. Even though the outcome was the only thing that could happen, what we hoped would happen, we each suffered regret and sadness along with the extreme relief, the exhilaration of new possibilities, and the sudden absence of scheming antagonism. And in the quieted aftermath, I discovered I no longer wanted that power. It drained me. It changed the landscape so completely, it could never be repaired. My limits for that turmoil were far exceeded, and there was no regrouping possible. For the first time I knew with clarity that it was my time to leave. I decided to voluntarily give up the power I so recently embraced, and I resigned.

But it wasn’t a relief. It was a swirled bittersweet candy I sucked on for weeks, moving it around with my tongue from spot to spot. Does it taste good here? Or here? How about here? There were isolated moments when I felt calm freedom and certainty. At those times, relieved and at peace, as I settled in to finally enjoy that sweet layer, thinking surely that was what there was at the center of all of this, I could still taste the sadness creeping in. And fear. And finally, depression. 

I ran.

With the blessing of my husband, I flew to South America with a friend who’s been through tough times and who loves me. Who has a good grasp on a solid reality that retains its magic and is sprinkled with serendipity. He’s a friend who challenges the assumptions of others and makes his life wholly and fearlessly his own. I needed that. We rented a car and drove away from Buenos Aires on a 2500 mile search for the Andes, dark purple wine pressed from spicy high altitude grapes, and cabrito, juicy salty crispy baby goat grilled over the hot IMG_6487embers of a wood fire. We laughed and took photos, and we talked about everything. We teetered at the edge of canyons, dizzy from the altitude, with our mouths open in awe. We drove 100mph on two lane roads, zipping around and past the pedestrian fearful slowpokes that plodded along, in the way and dulling the edge of our adventure. We spent a day content in silence, thinking our thoughts and shedding them like old skins, one by one as the miles peeled away under the tires of our car. We stopped by the road to photograph a cemetery made of carefully tended mausoleums and graves carved right into the side of the mountain that had its roots in the Inca tribes that occupied this land. The week before we got there, a raging river, flooding over its banks with Andean runoff had carried away half the town. We arrived as the Carnaval celebration, delayed for only a week because of the tragedy, took place.

In the dark dusty streets of the pueblo, lit only by the moon, lined with adobe houses made from the mud and grass of the ground we stand on, these people face their fear square in the face. They wave enormous rippling silk banners back and forth, beat drums and play IMG_5340trumpets in hypnotic rhythms that echo the centuries of ceremony and ritual that stretch back beyond recorded time. Their costumes are dark, and small mirrors are affixed to them, reflecting bits of light that happen to shine from open doorways. There are no street lights, and this Carnaval feels menacing and primal; all blood and bone, and thoroughly tragically human. Their dancing is frantic and aggressive in the dusty warm dark. Their dancing is a talisman against the death that stalked those narrow streets a week ago, as it has time and time before, as it rained and rained and water poured off the mountains and into their homes. This dancing is reclamation of their fragile hold on the land. They are injured, but they are not vanquished. We wonder to each other how much time these people spend worrying about their future, about their health, about their jobs. We begin to sense the value in being part of a Nature so overpowering there is no way to escape her. Nature always will find her way, and this humanity must keep dancing to survive; dancing quickly out of her way, or directly in front of her in defiance of her fury. They care for the graves of their ancestors as they know the only permanence in this huge land is death.

These mountains, the Andes, are massive. Their palpable looming power indescribable. They are breathing things, coiled up in the darkness and in the daylight, not caring whether we come or go, or even if we survive the trip. They planted themselves here eons ago, thrusting up out of the crust of a young Earth in a catastrophic birth of fire and lava, draining an ocean and exposing shells and sea life to an upheaval so violent the ancient sea floor is thrown up above the clouds where we now stand upon it. It is impossible to imagine. The chaos of primordial creation gouges out scars everywhere, and I, finally, am nothing. Stunningly insignificant. Utterly inconsequential to this huge harsh world. I am a speck. I am dust. And it is such a relief. In the heat of this high desert, with no one on the road except ourselves, and no houses to be seen, only the abandoned ruins of roofless adobe walls, life comes down to these four things: Water. Muscle. Grit. Luck. We stand in silent submission to the magnitude of these mountains because we have no choice. She will have it no other way. I finally feel my depression lift. I understand, I accept, and now I embrace my desire to give up the trappings of my small power, and in that I find the strength of real peace. I am enough as I am. The taste in my mouth is finally the ancient elemental sweetness of ground maize and dark purple Tannat, and my heart opens and flies. And I am free.

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Putting It To The Flame

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
― Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

He used to stand in front of the TV in denim overalls, hands tucked into the bib, riotous blonde curls on his head, to watch Sesame Street. Ready to dance, to sing along, to call me in to see at a moment’s notice. He handed out fierce hugs frequently, kissed his aunts’ hands when greeting them, and was my little shadow for years. Lap sitter. Hold me. Can I have another kiss goodnight? A re-appearer on the stairs after tuck-in to tell me just one more thing: Mommy, you’re so smart. You’re beautiful. I wanted to say thank you for my lunch box. He grew up so fast, as busy children – and parents – do. And while I may not remember every little word, gesture or moment of the growing up, I will remember the ache of complete and blindly obliterating love in my throat and my heart forever.

Banquet Final

Reverence for food runs through our lives like a deep dark river, and has for generations. Food is sacrament and sustenance, celebration and consolation. Preparation is joyful meditation, and sharing is a fulfilling communion. Conversation grows like morning glory vines scrambling up a string to bloom. Love is passed along with the roast spring lamb embedded with garlic, crusted with sea salt, rosemary and lemon juice; along with the pasta with fresh ricotta and spring’s baby arugula; with the winter’s chicken and dumplings, rich and feathery. The garnet wine, the black espresso, all become the easing lubricant for a life that can be a creaky and cumbersome burden. And the laughter that leaves us breathless is the real dessert along with the cream and the dark chocolate.

This weekend, I saw my son in new light; the focused laser of a being who hears and heeds his calling. He volunteers to help a friend with the cooking for a benefit dinner that is stalled in the planning. Their welcome of his expertise and practical suggestions turns him into the executive chef, and I’ve offered to help. How did this sensitive little boy grow into this young man so in command of his kitchen? He exerts full control with calm and humor and an understanding of human nature beyond his years. He rescues the fraternity brother, a volunteer, from the dish pan to which he’s been relegated, and asks him “How are you with a knife?” The boy replies, “Uh…OK, I guess.” My son gives him a knife-proof glove, gives him quick clear instruction, reassures him he can do it, hands him his lethally sharp personal santoku knife, and the fraternity brother is suddenly making a good chiffonade of fresh mustard greens to go into the braised chicken. Clearly, he likes this a lot more than the dish pan. My son as mentor with a sense of humor.

There’s a skill to getting five courses of dinner flowing to the dining room. Even more skill is required when the dining room is half a mile away from the kitchen. He has a crew of volunteers and amateur cooks, a clipboard with pages and pages of notes,Knives recipes, schedules, and lists of tasks to be completed, who’s to complete them, and in what order. This is the daredevil boy who rode his bike down the biggest hill he could find, as fast as he could go, ditching the bike helmet as soon as he left the house and my eyesight. This is the boy who set off a roman candle inside his car just to see what would happen. He runs his kitchen like an engineer runs a locomotive. It can’t be stopped or the whole thing derails. Timers tick away and ring their alarm. Pots are boiling, sauces simmering, oil heating, cold things kept cold, hot things kept hot. 60 plates heated in the oven until they are screaming hot. You can’t touch them without towels and even then you get burned. Bowls for sorbet and tiny spoons popped into the freezer to chill, then kept in a refrigerated truck until the sorbet is served before the entrée. One of the diners has an allergy. We prepare his appetizers and entrée separately, using dedicated knives, cutting boards, dishes, utensils, even gloves. He assembles his crew, checking items off the list as he doles out the duties. It all hinges on him and his organization, and he’s ready.

Instead of engaging in a showy tug of war for control, he quietly does things his way with no discussion and no fanfare, this boy who muscled his way through the terrible twos (and threes…and some of the fours…) with fearsome tantrums. My respect grows. There are two of us that he trusts completely, left in the kitchen to finish the cooking with him. I am honored to be one of them. After a lifetime of cooking for him, I’m now a bit intimidated by his knowledge and his skill. Do I measure up to the standard now set by my son? There are no do-overs here, and I don’t want to disappoint him. We fry 65 creamy polenta circles, we pull apart 10 braised chickens. I am told to thicken the braising liquid, redolent of white wine and chicken stock, and I am relieved when he pronounces it “perfect.”

The food is finished cooking, wrapped and covered, and stored in hot boxes for transporting to the tent at the site of the dinner. We plate the salads in an assembly line. He watches to be sure that the salad will stretch. There is enough left for two additional salads. Good planning feeds generously, while minimizing waste. The salads are cleared, and sorbet is served. A fresh mint leaf and a frozen spoon are settled into each little white cup, and trays are whisked away by servers. We set up to plate the entrées. He tells us all to get fresh gloves. We will plate the allergy sufferer’s entrée first. A circle of polenta goes down onto the plate. Next, a handful of hot chicken pieces. Hands are a much better, more satisfying way to judge how much you’re serving than an impersonal spoon. A ladle of the braising sauce is poured over the chicken. A warm salad of blanched, still crisp green beans combined with chopped peppers and a vinegar dressing is added to the plate. Passed along the line, a garnish of chopped mustard greens is sprinkled atop the chicken, a vivid orange nasturtium blossom is tucked in beside the beans. Each beautiful plate is passed to the “wiper” who makes sure each one is perfectly clean before it’s put on the waiter’s tray. My son keeps a close eye on each step, his final instruction telling the waiters to set the plate onto the table with the chicken covered polenta at 6 o’clock, and the nasturtium on the left. Uniformly beautiful and delicious.

The entrées are all served, and then we plate desserts. First, fresh gloves for everyone. Thick slices of carrot cake with buttery cream cheese frosting gets a rosette of whipped cream. Alternatively, there is a dense moist chocolate cake sweetened with puréed beets, covered with a glorious chocolate ganache. More whipped cream is piped out, and these dark plates get a mint leaf and a fat red raspberry as a little extra gilding. Entrées are cleared, and desserts are served. My son is called into the candlelit tent by the dinner’s organizers, and their chef is introduced to the assembled group who have paid $50 a plate for tonight’s meal. Their enthusiastic applause brings tears to my eyes. He waves a modest thank you. He is exhausted.

The last few diners linger over their coffee and dessert, and then leave, and finally we can begin clearing up. The job is enormous. Everything must be taken away in trucks; glasses, plates, bowls, cups, every spoon and fork and knife, transported to the dish washers waiting at the University. The refrigerator truck must be driven away. Tables must be taken down, linens bagged, chairs folded and returned, food wrapped and saved for donation or discarded as unsafe to eat again. I return to the prep kitchen, which also must be cleaned. I leave my son loading piles of chairs onto a pickup truck. An hour later, he returns to the prep kitchen where we are finishing up the wiping and washing. He grabs a broom and even though he looks ready to drop, he makes sure the floor is clean, he sorts out his knives and cleans and dries them, putting them away in their canvas roll. He packs up the bins of blenders and propane burners, stock pots, spoons, whisks, grill scouring pads, and all the paraphernalia essential to the success of an event like this, and carries them to his car. This boy, whose bedroom was a chaotic stockpile of clothing, video games, books, music, lacrosse pads, sneakers and computer parts for years, puts his broom away. He casts a final appraising eye over the kitchen. He’s left it cleaner and tidier than he found it. And at 11:15 PM his day is over. I invite him to the house. I give him a beer and we share a drink and a cigar in the quiet cool back yard. And we talk over the day and he makes me laugh so hard my stomach hurts. I tell him how proud I am of who I saw tonight, how fortunate to be able to work with him in his chosen and hard-won profession. I am so fortunate to find deep respect for this child of mine. I feel that ache of love in my throat again, as strong and deep as when he was 3. I always will.

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The Runway in Addis Ababa

AddisWe have been flying for 17 hours. Cramped, dried out and restless, muscles aching and emotionally depleted, we are finally landing at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I’m hungry for the sight of this country to which I’m suddenly deeply connected. I look out of my window, just past the wing of the plane. The grass is lush and green at the end of the rainy season, and goats and a donkey are grazing inside the fences along the runway. The plane touches down and powerful brakes slow our progress. To my surprised dismay, I cannot control the tears that overflow onto my cheeks and I catch a sob in my hand. This was Maya’s home; the soil she was born to, and now I’m here for her new sister. I look at my sister, Maya’s mother. She is crying too. We are in Africa.

We don’t realize it, but we are arriving on Ethiopian New Year’s Eve. We stand in line in the nearly deserted airport, waiting for our luggage to appear. Amharic, the Ethiopian language, ripples and flows around us, a bubbling and shushing sound with a glottal hesitation, a quick intake of breath which seems to be the sound for “do you understand what I mean?”, a signal for those conversing to indicate shared understanding. Amharic’s 250 characters, in contrast to our paltry 26 letters, make it one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. Any English we hear is so heavily accented it sounds like its own foreign language. Barefoot men on a pilgrimage, dressed in elaborately embroidered silk robes and white skull caps, lounge majestically on the floor against their bags while they wait for their flight. We pay for our tourist visa with an American $20 bill as carefully instructed beforehand, show our passports, and wait patiently while the women behind the table handwrite our visas. My passport with my Ethiopian visas written in blue ink is now one of my most treasured possessions. We change our money for an enormous handful of Ethiopian birr. Seventeen to the dollar. Another perfunctory scan – terrorism apparently is not a high probability in this impoverished nation – and we struggle out to the lobby. There is no one there to meet us. We are the only white people left in the airport.

We decide to wait, as African time is sometimes a fluid and casual thing, and the one pay phone we can find is a mystery to us. Its instructions are in Amharic, and it is not entirely clear how to dial a number. At any rate, we have no coins yet. After an hour, we decide we should try to contact someone, and looking around, totally out of our element, decide to go to the tourism booth to ask for assistance. The handsome young man is very polite. We explain our predicament and he offers to make some calls for us. We become his project on a day when I suspect business is slow in this deserted airport, and he has not much else to do. Shira digs through her enormous folder of adoption paperwork and gives him three phone numbers. The first two numbers are disconnected. We are a bit dismayed, but after nearly two years of waiting, we feel certain anything can be righted. We are here for Lidiya, and she is waiting for us. The third number, the number for the guest house where we are to stay, works. We aren’t expected until next week. Never mind, someone will come to pick us up, and the guest house will be ready.

While we wait, we are given tourism brochures to read. A chair is instantly moved out of the kiosk so there is room for the two of us to sit with all our luggage. Not safe to let it sit outside the kiosk. Our handsome young savior – all Ethiopian men are extraordinarily handsome, and the women beautiful – stands, asking us questions about where we are from, and we have a halting conversation, with him apologizing profusely for his very good English. He earns his pay as he advises us on the things we must see while we are in Addis. His cell phone rings. Someone has arrived for us. He insists on escorting us to the parking lot and takes all our luggage for us. We discover later he doesn’t trust the people who are meeting us and he wants to see them for himself, making sure we will be alright. It strikes us both that this kind of care for foreign strangers would be completely out of the ordinary in our “advanced” country.

Wagayehu, the proprietor of the guest house, welcomes us with open arms. We know him from our previous trip. He tells us we are in time to walk outside the steel hyena fence, the gate minded by a silent man dressed in Biblical robes, down the road to a restaurant to get our dinner. He then invites us to join him and Zmed, his housekeeper, for the New Year’s Eve bonfire after we return. In the driveway of the house, we gather after dark. He tells us he is so glad we are here to celebrate the Gregorian New Year with them, and this makes us feel at home. Our parents have always done the same for friends and acquaintances on holidays. Tonight karma returns Galen and Deanna’s hospitality to their two daughters a continent away. The bonfire is lit, to celebrate the end of the rainy season when roads, even in this enormous city, are awash in mud and potholes, and roads in the country are impassable. But the wood is damp, which is no surprise, so Zmed throws a tin full of gasoline on the pile, and the resulting blaze makes us all cheer and clap. Wagayehu and Zmed sing a traditional song, somewhat shyly, then we all listen. We can hear the enormous crowd celebrating in Meskele Square, the nexus of all the major roads in Addis Ababa. Maya’s Ethiopian name is Meskele, and her parents have kept it as her middle name. It is eerily appropriate to hear the chanting and singing of thousands of Ethiopians from her namesake square, which means “cross” in Amharic. I send my own prayer up into the dark: Maya Meskele, I love you so much, little brown girl of this country, this continent, and we are here now for your sister.

Our friend, Abey Abera, is once again our driver. Without him we would be lost. He is tour guide, translator, macchiato provider, and price negotiator. He tells us that before we arrived, Wagayehu slaughtered a sheep and two chickens in the driveway for the New Year’s Day feast. We are sorry to have missed that. Fresh sheep skins, minus the heads, with legs still attached, are spread out on the highway median for sale or barter. The head of the sheep, a New Year’s gift for the friendly family dog, lays in the front yard this morning, well-chewed. Nothing goes to waste in this country. We buy sweet grass to strew on the floor, to make the house fresh and welcoming for the New Year, and coffee, always coffee, and flowers whose petals decorate the floor as well. Zmed, her long hair, usually braided and coiled on her head, let loose and shiny down her back, provincial tattoos lining her jaw, is dressed in her festive clothing. Irridescent celery-colored silk with gold embroidery. She is transformed. And then Lidiya arrives. She begins to cry immediately and wants nothing to do with these two white women who she doesn’t know. We talk softly to her, Shira holds her new daughter, we stroke her fuzzy head with the little bit of hair she has done up in tiny ponytails. She quiets, and becomes wary and watchful. Lidiya, sweet girl, on this festival day we are here for you, and we already love you.

We eat our dinner, complex spicy flavors, the sour injera, the velvety dark red doro wot, big chunks of sheep and chicken put on our plates first as honored guests, and Ethiopian red wine. Wagayehu is concerned we will be put off by the serving of wine and the Ethiopian reverence for coffee, which is the blood of this country. He explains that another adoptive family stayed with them, and refused all wine and coffee. They explained to him that they couldn’t partake, wouldn’t partake, and then, triumphantly, “Because we are Christians.” He recounts how he told them, so was he, and he drank both coffee and wine. In the face of such generosity, their rudeness astonishes us. He, even now, can’t quite believe it. An enormous circular bread, flecked with black nigella seeds and baked in banana leaves, is cut and offered. The platter is passed to Lidiya. She solemnly takes a gigantic piece of bread, and carefully takes a bite, her enormous black eyes looking out at all of us over the golden crust. We all laugh, and Wagayehu’s daughter-in-law makes crooning sounds and speaks to her in Amharic. We see Lidiya relax and she enjoys her bread.

Lidiya footWhen everyone has gone, and the house is dark and quiet, it is just us and Lidiya. She is resigned that we are all she has right now. She falls asleep on Shira’s lap, covered with a blanket belonging to Maya that Shira brought from home. We are alone with our baby. Even in adoption there is that moment after “birth” when the primal mother inspects her baby, taking loving inventory, committing each swirl of hair and earfold to memory. Our eyes take her in, little hands and fingers, feet and toes, her mouth frowning as she sleeps, her black eyebrows and impossibly long and luxurious eyelashes. We don’t talk. We just look. And we pat her back, and touch her hands, and rub her foot. We tell her the only way we can that we are here for her; that we have already loved her for months.

LidiyaThe next morning, we open our eyes, and she is standing in her crib beside our bed. She absently plays with her fingers in a little gesture of worry. She gazes at us with eyes that don’t blink. Considering and wondering. The bravery of this little girl, barely a year old, is heartbreaking, and I feel grief for her and the painful wrench we bring, along with our love and our suitcases, that will take her from everything she is and everything she knows.

The rest of the week is taken up with embassy appointments, chasing a document that is suddenly missing from the adoption file, experiencing the food and the drink, and sightseeing that we may never be able to do again. Our intent is to return when the girls are older, but Ethiopian politics is always in flux, and it’s not a given that that will be possible. We take hundreds of photographs, and buy gifts to be given to the girls on birthdays in the coming years. We drink it in and learn as much as we can, because we will be the living link to Ethiopia for Maya and for Lidiya. We will be the source of their story, and their history, imperfect, but loving, and we have to do our best. We buy paintings by Ethiopian artists in which Maya now swears she can see the nannies that took care of her when she was in Ethiopia before Mommy and Daddy came to get her.

I think Abey trusts us and trusts that we love Addis Ababa. One night, just after dark, while waiting for a tiny silver bracelet to be engraved with an Ethiopian name, he takes us down a dark alley in the fading daylight. A sloping walkway crowded with people, no more than 3 feet across, lined on either side with kiosks right up against each other, filled with books, shoes, cooking utensils, clothing, food, and other household essentials. I think to myself, this feels real and pure. This is undiluted Africa. We are the only white faces. There is no English spoken. Merchants call out to customers, shouting prices and advertising sales. We walk down the rough cobbled walkway. We are an easy target and hopelessly conspicuous. For once, we are the minority, just as Maya and Lidiya will be in the life we are making for them. Countless dark eyes follow us down the path. I find out later from Shira, that Abey warned a young man away from grabbing my purse with a clipped Amharic word and a stern look. He melted away into the crowd.

At week’s end, we are ready to leave. Lidiya is legally ours, and has an Ethiopian passport all her own with a photo that is all huge watchful eyes. A lilliputian representative of her dynamic country. Abey arrives to drive us to the airport. While he loads our luggage, we say our goodbyes. We all know this is most likely the last time we will see each other. Lidiya knows that something is distressing us all. She is fussing and reaching toward Zmed, who has been her mother this week. She begins to cry in earnest as we hug and kiss Wagayehu and Zmed. We are indescribably sad at this permanent leave-taking. As Abey backs the car up, I look forward, and Wagayehu, this former military man, a decorated war hero, a 4-star general in Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian army, who spent seven years imprisoned when the regime changed but won’t talk about it, stands in the roadway, waving farewell with both hands over his head. Lidiya is screaming, and reaching out to those brown faces she knows. Her heart is breaking, and her grief and fear and anger tear at us. Tears stream down my face and Shira’s too. Lidiya, Lidiya, we love you and we are here for you, but what are we doing to you in the process?

We go through the scanners at the airport. We negotiate a line in which we are moved farther and farther back as Ethiopians, seeing that we are two white women taking one of their own children from them, push into line ahead of us, and ignore our protests. White adoptive parents are not heroes in this country. I understand their anger. We finally board the plane, and our departure is delayed. The polish is now off this trip, and we are anxious about the next 27 hours of travel, unaware yet that it will stretch to 37 hours, with a little girl who doesn’t really like us and who has not once been really happy with us in the week we’ve had her. Shira holds her and bounces her and sings to her and offers her a blanket to cuddle. We feed her ginger cookies to keep her happy.

Finally we are taxiing down the runway. Lidiya is belted in on Shira’s lap. We are flying her away from the one home she knows, and taking her to another we have made for her. Another home where there is a little brown sister waiting with a Daddy, a Nana and a Papa, cousins, and aunts and uncles. Her sister is the only one who looks like her, but we, all of us, already love her with a fierce encompassing love. She doesn’t know any of this. All she knows is the two of us with our pale pink faces, and our ginger cookies that she accepts with a little smile. She takes a piece out of her mouth and offers it to me. Sharing with me. A milestone. I happily take it and eat that sweetest little piece of wet cookie, and my heart aches and instantly melts. I thank her and kiss her smooth warm cheek. This sweet strong brown baby girl, watchful, careful, and cautious, looks into our eyes, and decides for herself that this might be alright. She snuggles down into the arms of her new mother, and smiles at me over her arm. Lidiya, we have come so far for you, to make you ours. I think though, that you have made us yours. All of us are wholly yours. Yours and Maya’s. The plane gains speed, and lifts off up into the dark African sky.

Lidiya2

Maya

My Mother’s Table

I learned a lot at my mother’s table. Lessons about sharing, loving, acceptance. I learned frugality and common sense. At my mother’s table there was always room for another chair, and another plate, and the food always stretched in a loaves and fishes way. There was a hand on your shoulder. A hug. A home if you needed it. Our friends, students of my father’s, refugees, exchange students from foreign countries, cousins, and, when the time came, grandparents who could no longer manage on their own.

FamilyMy mother grew up wearing dresses skillfully made from flour sacks, in the coal regions of Pennsylvania; the granddaughter of a gruff, taciturn little man, my Pop Pop, who supported his family at 13 years old as a coal picker. Raised by her grandparents, her father, and her aunt, she learned those same lessons from “Mom”, her grandmother Cora, for whom my sister is named. Cora’s dumplings are still the standard. Her soups, her jams and jellies reproduced for us, “just like Mom’s” – the ultimate stamp of approval. Her strawberry shortcake was mashed fresh strawberries with a couple teaspoons of sugar “to bring out the juice,” ladled over hot baking powder cakes, and eaten with milk poured over it all for dinner. That was a supper we always looked forward to, that spoke summer to us in an elemental language. Eating strawberry shortcake for dessert with whipped cream was a frivolous extravagance that strawberries, dark red and still warm from the sun, didn’t need to shine. A hot meal for hobos wandering through on the railroad was always provided. There, but for the grace of God might go any of us.

My mother wore the same clothes forever. I thought for a long time it was just because she loved them. She never said it was because all their income went to clothing us, giving us music lessons, buying us books to read, instruments to play, music to listen to, encouraging any interest we might have with trips to museums and cities, for riding lessons and any of the countless pets we wanted to adopt. At Easter we would go with my father to the florist. We’d buy her a corsage for her Easter dress; yellow rosebuds and baby’s breath with feathery ferns, and the wonderful green florist smell when the little plastic treasure chest, chilly from the refrigerator, opened just before church.

Their yard is overgrown by gardener’s standards. I suggested cutting some things down, to neaten it up. “We all have to share this earth.”, was her reply. She feeds the multitude of birds that come to her window – hummingbirds, wrens, finches, cardinals, bluebirds, chickadees, doves. They have bushes and trees for cover, houses, and pieces of string and dryer fluff for nesting, seed and oranges and nectar for their nourishment. Toads have a little house under the magnolia, and the trees she planted all through our childhood are now soaring green groves of cool shade. Little dishes of food are put out for the neighborhood cats, and they all have names.

When I drive somewhere in the evening, I look without thinking for deer at the edges of woods and fields, look for hawks, chipmunks, and weasels, keep an eye opened for foxes, bears, and butterflies. My father mows around the large spreads of violets that come up in the yard solely because they’re so pretty. I see and feel the wonderful beauty of nature and know the names of countless trees and flowers, and birds because of her. When I hike, her voice whispers in my ear, “Sshh…or you’ll never see anything.”

partyAt my house, I like to cook for people. I like to cook with people. We like to laugh, and we feed birds and squirrels. We love our three cats and care for them well. I plant flowers and bushes to entice butterflies and birds to stop awhile, and celebrate the arrival of honeybees. Family, and friends who are so dear to us the line between “family” and “friend” blurs and disappears, gather together. I spread my mother’s hand sewn tablecloths on the tables, and place the family china around. I make the food whose recipes aren’t even written down. We sit, and eat, and talk, and tease, and laugh, and reaffirm our ties that don’t so much bind as they hold. As they embrace. We gather in and welcome back. We settle in and we look outward. And we go forward. And we carry with us the precious glowing lessons we learned at my mother’s table.

Argentina Speaks

CafeNot being able to understand anything anyone is saying is both humbling and liberating. On the one hand, I can’t order my own coffee, and someone has to read the menu to me like I’m a preschooler, then help me figure out how much it will cost when the waiter asks for payment. But listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand, you are free to be an anonymous spectator, to watch the face, the eyes, the hands, the set of the chin, the forehead, the turn of a lip. Eyebrows alone tell a story in the language of the body that is too often overpowered by the noise of the words.  The tone of the voice, the upward or downward inflection at the end of a sentence. It all sounds somehow familiar, like listening to a toddler speaking – that if you could listen just a little closer, you would understand the words – but there is no real comprehension.

Two men, over coffee, looking sad, speaking quietly in short bursts, avoiding each other’s eyes. They examine their fingers, a fork, their untouched food, anything but the other’s eyes. They finally eat, silently, and then one leaves. The other stays, stirring a second coffee, looking out the window at nothing.

Two academics with bulging leather book bags and heavy beards, have a spirited and loud conversation.  Passionate, gesturing with animated hands, almost angry, but laughing as well. Their joy in the debate so clear.

PrideI’m sitting around a table with a group of people. Rapid conversation, short bursts of laughter. Quick sideways glances at me, then eyes sliding away.  I’m being discussed, and perhaps not kindly. I think it is good that an American feel self-conscious, on edge, and out-of-place. We so often assume ownership and welcome without earning it. The little dog on my lap licks my chin. She only knows the language of my fingers slowly massaging her tight shoulder muscles, and she’s happy with me.

Argentine spanish is lyrical, musical, singsongy and soft, with buzzing j’s and ssh sounds, the r’s rolling out of the mouth like bubbles of water.  When asking a question of someone, the language sounds always, to me, apologetic. I’m so sorry but could I ask…? No, I’m so sorry, but it cannot happen…., with shoulder shrugs met with entreaties to reconsider, have you thought of this? What about this? Then finally, the No, I’m so very sorry but we are out of that flavor of helado. Ah well, alright. We’ll choose from the other 30 flavors today. World weight and ceremony given to ice cream, to grilling meat, and to wine.  A country that understands priorities.

JacarandaWhen I have travelled abroad, someone with whom I’m spending time apologizes to me for their English, their second and sometimes third language, and I feel deficient and ignorant. I know no Spanish. I know so little French anymore I couldn’t communicate if I needed to, although I comfort myself by knowing I could still read a street sign. And so tonight we go to visit new friends who have apologized ahead of time for their English. Our friend translates freely, happily, tirelessly for me and my husband, and these men are gracious and make the effort to speak English to us so we feel a part of the evening. The food, tender baby goat roasted with potatoes in cream and almond sauce will be new and deliciously mysterious, the bottles of deep red bonarda will grease the wheels, and I know we’ll have a nice time. They will be able to communicate so much better in English than I will in Spanish, yet at some point, everyone will relax, Spanish will rightfully take over the evening, and I will again watch the conversation like a recital. I don’t mind. I love the music of the language. The build to the laughter, the fall to the quiet pronouncement. The calm of agreement and consensus, and the clatter of discord. Hands and eyes and mouths communicating more than the words themselves. Real friends. Affection pouring around the table with the wine, and two Americans folded into the circle. A privilege.