all of the selves we Have ever been
In the midst of a pandemic that feels endless, already there is talk of the next crisis--water.
Knowledgeable people are banking on it, trading water on the commodities exchange. News footage validates the forecast with images of dry river beds, massive wildfires, and places where critical ground water has been pumped beyond its limits to replenish.
Waterways are polluted by industrial toxins, discarded plastics, and human waste. Around the world, people are on the move leaving behind land that is turning to dust.
I sit here in my uneasy chair for some self-examination. I have taken the supply of water for granted my entire life. I turn on the tap and out flows cool, clean water.
As a teenager living in the growing suburbs of Pittsburgh, I became familiar with families living outside the city limits whose homes had wells. Sometimes I visited them in the summer when the water was low and laundry had to be hauled to the laundromat, and the grass turned brown, and showers were limited to keep the wells from running dry. It all seemed so primitive to me from my perch in the privileged suburbs where the sprinkler ran for hours. In my mind’s eye, wells belonged in the old American west, to a world of gunslingers and dusty cattle drives, in barren places depicted on shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke, a world of black and white, certainly not living color. Earlier experience had led me to this faulty conclusion.
There were two giant concrete discs in my grandmother’s grassy backyard. It was only in fleeting moments of bravery that I dared to run across one of the discs. More often, I walked around them fearing that something dangerous lurked beneath and was just waiting to grab me by the ankles. Perhaps it was our happy lives above ground that skirted trouble from below. Above the ground life was vibrant. Children laughed while grabbing juicy pears from the tree overhanging the porch. Aproned women snipped dewy roses from thorny bushes that climbed white trellises along the back wall. Damp clothes hung shoulder-to-shoulder on the clotheslines, shooing away danger as they blew and snapped in the swift summer breeze. Screen doors slammed as we ran in and out of the house. Familiar voices filled the air like music.
Somewhere along the way, I learned that the concrete discs in my grandmother’s yard were lids. They covered the cisterns that once upon a time collected rainwater to support life and clean laundry inside my grandmother’s house. I was dumbfounded. I never imagined that the ultra-modern home of my grandmother had a frontier history. How could that be when every modern innovation in the world was introduced to me there: wall-to-wall carpeting, automatic dishwashers, recliner chairs, color TV, and air conditioning? Clearly, gathering rain water was ancient history. Problem solved. We were modern taps and pipes people who relied upon the city water department to do the heavy lifting and keep the river of water flowing into our home.
The magical innovations that appeared inside my grandmother’s house were not only evidence of a changing infrastructure, but evidence of a changing thirst, and we, like many Americans, became insatiable. We wanted more of the new, the time-saving, and the convenient. The economy was booming in the post-war era and so were the number of babies. Life had been hard. Now it was good. It was easy to believe that the frontier days of wells and cisterns were a thing of the past. We never imagined that water itself would disappear in our quest to make life not just easier, but effortless.
We grew up as descendants of the American frontier and were fortunate to bring our children into a world of abundance and convenience, but our children face life on a new frontier, the frontier of climate change. Will their lives be better or more difficult than ours?
As I downsize, focusing on what to keep and what to leave behind for my children, I look at my stuff and realize that I have never owned anything more precious than water. If I could do it all again, I would trade automatic dishwashers and color TVs for the life that existed in my grandmother’s backyard. I would buy insurance so that my children would be sure to know the cool, soft pleasure of moist green grass between their toes, the sweet flavor of pear juice trickling down their chins, the musky fragrance of velvety roses tickling their noses, and the sound of damp, clean clothes snapping in the breeze shooing away danger. I would have lifted those lids and saved for my children an inheritance that is the birthright of all children, the life-giving, thirst-quenching miracle that is water.
I’ve joined a resistance movement.
It has nothing to do with politics or espionage. We won’t be storming capitol buildings, carrying protest signs, recovering from nerve gas, or contacting our supporters from prison. Though there are a lot of us in the movement, we don’t stage large group protests or carry out subterfuge under the cover of darkness. We go to bed way too early for that.
On the surface, this seems like a benign movement because it is primarily championed by older adults and preschoolers, two groups often subject to condescension. “Keep things simple” is the group’s philosophy. Each group member is committed to doing only one thing at a time in a won’t-be-rushed fashion. The membership has adopted “I did it my way” as its motto. Under duress, we are known to collapse to the floor and refuse to move.
Volumes have been written about how to break this type of resistance. There are several fields devoted to curbing the anarchy, and the self-help industry has grown rich pumping out books and motivational speakers to make us all highly effective and more productive while squashing the aforementioned instincts of the resistance movement.
I admit it—I bought into all of the official literature, the self-help books, and the chorus of influencers. When my children were young (and I was much younger too), doing many things at once was the rule. For example, a typical after work, after school, after sports games and practices, and after after-school orthodontist appointments, a relaxing evening routine might begin with laundry. While the dirty clothes agitated in the washing machine, clean clothes tumbled in the dryer. With one ear listening for the timer in order to transfer the loads and fold the dry stuff, I prepared dinner and packed lunches for the next day. The children sat nearby at the kitchen table where I helped them with homework. I checked the mail on the kitchen counter and emptied the dishwasher in preparation for the after-dinner dishes. I listened to the messages on the telephone answering machine and made to-do lists for the coming tomorrows. Watching the clock, I organized the rest of the evening’s tasks so that everything fell into place by bedtime—baths taken, school clothes ironed, sports gear packed, permission slips signed, appointments made. Check. Check. Check.
But that was a long time ago. Now, I am tired. I don’t want to do five hundred things at once. The rhythm of my new life? One thing at a time. Right now the laundry is tumbling in the dryer, and I am okay with just waiting for it to finish before I begin a new task. That nagging voice still taunts me with whispers of all of the things I could be doing while I wait for the dryer to complete its cycle, all the ways I could be more effective, but…I resist. Sure, I could be putting the big rocks in my jar and filling in the spaces of my executive planner, but I’d rather shake the rocks out of my head and relax, maybe do a little coloring. My goal is to have no goals, just wait and see what happens next.
There is a lot to be learned from young children about what’s important. And they know the shortcuts for getting there. Little children are labeled ego-centric and older adults described as “set in their ways.” I guess the old and the very young have a lot in common. They are the tireless advocates and we are the tired ones; together, we are in cahoots and up to no good. The shared resistance must be the real reason older folks make such wonderful grandparents.
When everyone you love leaves the building, is it still Home?
I experience uneasiness when my adult children visit the house and then leave. I become keenly aware of my aloneness. I feel restless and conspicuous, a stranger in my own dwelling. I am like the lone diner holding a big table in a busy restaurant. Self-conscious and out-of-place, my mind obsesses: Everyone’s late. Will anyone come? Have they forgotten? Has something terrible happened? Should I call? How long do I wait? Should I stay? Should I go? Do I order? What if they never come?
After a day or two, I fall back into the rhythms of my daily life, but it starts all over again the next time the children visit and say goodbye.
The writer Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Well, you can go home, but maybe you shouldn’t, at least not when the house is no longer occupied by people you love.
A few years ago, I visited a friend in Pittsburgh. I had not been back to my childhood hometown for more than 20 years. I had not seen the family house in more than 30 years. My dear friend who understands these things offered to drive me past the home where I spent most of my childhood. I still remembered the address, and was able to navigate our way to the neighborhood even though I could not recall the name of every street we traversed to get there.
We pulled up alongside the old two-story house. It looked small and dingy. Was the yard always that tiny? How could that patch of grass have hatched so many games and adventures? How did we have room for baseball, hide-n-seek, running through the sprinkler, and chasing lightning bugs? The stocky, bright green pine trees my father planted along the driveway were now giants but they looked dark, scraggly, out-of-place, and menacing. A strong wind might bring them crashing down on the house.
I wondered, “Who lives here now?” Does the old house seem so weary to them? Or is it a “new” home to someone? Are children inside fighting over the remote and laying claim to the couch? Is there still a chain lock on the basement door that someone checks as they close up for the night? Who is sleeping in “my” room? Does wallpaper still cover the place where my feet went through the wall after I fell down the wooden steps in my stockinged feet? Is there a dad listening to talk radio in the basement workshop? Are a couple of boys out in the backyard building rocket ships out of cardboard wardrobe boxes?
We sat in the car for a few minutes. No signs of life emerged in or around the house. It was a corpse, and I felt bereft. Seeing my former home so changed seemed to be sucking the life out of me. It was time to get out of there. I can’t go back again.
I should have known better, but when I visited my cousin Marcia at her home in Cadiz she asked me if I wanted to take a drive to Adena, the family home of my mother and our maternal grandparents. It was the most magical place of my entire childhood, maybe my entire life. I had not been back for a very long time. “Let’s go,” I said.
We drove down the main street past the old office of my uncles’ coal company. Further down the street on opposite sides, the house of my Aunt Addie was inhabited by a new family I did not know. Across the street, my Uncle T’s house had gone through several transformations. It had been a doctor’s office and then a residence to someone new. Neither house was as grand as I remembered. No light or life beckoned me to enter the front door or run around back to the playhouse or the basketball court.
The real heartbreak was yet ahead. We turned onto Hanna Avenue, the yellow-brick-road of my childhood. It led to the family grocery store and to my grandmother’s house. Where there had once been a door that squeaked open and slammed shut hundreds of times a day, an empty lot greeted me. The store had been torn down years before after being used for a training exercise by the fire department. The grand, old house was standing, but barely. It leaned toward the street looking flimsy. After the passing of my grandmother and my aunts, the house was sold to a woman who planned to establish a home for elderly folks in need of care. The plan did not come to fruition, and the bank now owned the home with plans to demolish it. I longed to enter one more time, to walk the long hallway, sit down in the bright yellow kitchen, to take some kielbasa from the skillet on the stove.
But the lights were out. Not just in the house, but in my eyes. I blinked. Stared. Blinked and opened my eyes wider. Nothing. Something changed in my heart. I felt robbed. It was like being part of a black-and-white pencil sketch instead of a colorful, three-dimensional world. There was no background. No sound. Everything was vague and disappearing. The past was being erased. There is no Home to go back to.
I think of Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’s journey home after the Trojan War. It took Odysseus ten years, of wandering and being tested. For seven of those years, he was in captivity, mourning and dreaming of home.
We are in the midst of a pandemic. First, it was characterized as a battle, then a storm. Perhaps, for most of us, it is the epic journey of our lives. We dream of Home—not just the shelter where we hang up our coats and lay down our heads for the night, but the place where we visit and entertain, where we freely embrace our loved ones and watch the children and grandchildren grow up. It is the place where we share hugs, kisses, and joy not germs. This holiday season, we are all dreaming of Home.
I have safe shelter, but that alone is not Home. I am reminded of the definition of Home every time my children visit and say goodbye. Wherever they are, that’s my Home.
I have a few screws loose.
I know what you are thinking, but I am not talking about my head.
I am speaking about my pots and pans--a set of stainless steel Farberware that I received as a gift when I first set up housekeeping more than 40 years ago. With the help of some Bar Keeper’s Friend Cleanser, the collection still sparkles like new. Lately, about every two or three weeks, I tighten the screws that join the handles to the pots and pans, but within a few days, subtle wiggles return.
I am having trouble accepting this change in condition. These pots and pans have been with me most of my adult life. Every meal ever served in my home has come from inside these familiar vessels. The dutch oven has also served as a health aid at bedside when a stomach was upset. It has been a dish pan, a step stool for tiny feet, a helmet, and a container for Legos. Each pot has taken its turn as a musical instrument and a sorting bin. All have left the kitchen to come and go from the magical world of make believe. These kitchen tools have conjured up cleaning potions, medicinal tonics and Kool-Aid scented play dough.
We are a team my pots and me. We have our systems down. Without a measure, the smallest pot and I can fill a favorite tea cup to the brim without a drop of overflow. I know just how long the searing meat can sizzle in the skillet before the roast begins to stick. The bend in the bottom of the largest pot guides my pour of oil as I prepare to make the crunchiest popcorn.
We’ve been together a long time. These containers have outlasted countless apartments and two houses. They are well-traveled, moving in state and out. My pots and pans proved sturdier than a marriage, and more reliable than a Rolex. They helped me to feed and rear two children, sharing my memories of warming baby bottles and pancake breakfasts on sleep-over mornings. As one, we have simmered spaghetti sauce and soup to help fill stomachs in households where sorrow has been.
In the digital age, we have grown accustomed to constant updates. We no longer expect our things to last. We buy pre-fab furniture and leave it at the curb when we move. Fancy refrigerators and cars that talk to us last just a couple of years before they break down, require an update, or need a part so expensive that we might as well replace them.
I am a child of the mechanical age growing up in a household where a washing machine or a television might need a repair, but it lasted a lifetime. Families accumulated fine things not so much by shopping, but by handing down treasured heirlooms to the next generation. There is no bread machine that can replace the carved wooden bowl in which my grandmother kneaded the dough that became her signature raisin bread. There is no fine cabinetry that can replace the worn butcher block on which my grandfather cut meat in a small grocery store that helped feed a community during the Great Depression.
I love things that last--familiar things that share my memories and tell a story. Perhaps I will lose my mind on that day when the screws finally fall from the handles of my old pots and pans.
In the years after my father separated from military service
and moved us to the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I grew up and moved out on my own. I traveled to the city each day for work. While I was becoming a bonafide urban dweller, the world was changing. My small town roots were covered by the soil of a new reality.
As a young child in the small village that was home to my extended family, I had roamed the streets without any fears. It wasn’t until I was a young adult and back for a visit at my aunt’s home that I lay my head down on the pillow one night and thought about the front door. There were sounds of angry voices coming from a bar down the street. Unsure of the cause of the racket, my senses went on alert, and for the first time in my life, I wondered if the doors to my aunt’s house were locked.
Growing up, my regular territory was comprised mostly of the two main streets that made up the town. On each street there were open doors that I could walk into at any time. I didn’t have to knock or ring the bell. I did not need to phone ahead or wait for an invitation. My grandmother’s house was on Hanna Avenue, the center of our universe. Next door to her home was the family grocery store. My Aunt Addie lived on Main Street across from my Uncle Tony and Aunt Nancy. Many cousins filled the rooms of those houses. A short walk down Main Street and I was at the offices of the company my uncles owned and operated. The office was staffed by aunts and uncles and a few people who had worked for my uncles for so long, I thought they were my family.
No one had security systems. Heck, they didn’t even have keys. If a doorbell rang, it really got our attention. These places were always open to me. I could step inside and use the bathroom, open the refrigerator, find good food and plenty of fun company. We were all one large pride.
And then it happened. All the cubs grew up. The multitude of cousins slowly moved out and moved away. We joined the world of locks and keys, and later security systems. My cousins’ lives became busy and they had limited opportunities to return.
Most of the time I was busy with my adult life too, but I returned to Hanna Avenue and Main Street whenever I could. Slowly, the aunts and uncles departed this world. Eventually, their houses were handed off to strangers, and I never again entered those doors.
As a child, I thought that the whole world was made of houses like theirs, houses with open doors, homes jam-packed with aunts and uncles and cousins. I took it all for granted until it was no more. And then I began to feel like Puff the Magic Dragon after Jackie Paper grew up: “Puff no longer went to play along the Cherry Lane. Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave…”
It was easier for me to be brave on Hanna Avenue and Main Street. That is where the magic lived.
But that is not the end of the story. Magic may sleep, but it does not die.
Many years later, I moved to a new city. My daughter and I stepped into the check-out line in an unfamiliar grocery store. I took notice of the woman in front of me. “That looks like my cousin,” I said to my daughter. I tapped the woman on her shoulder, and she turned toward me. Presto-chango! It was my cousin. I no longer lived in a strange new city. I had kin!
In the years since our meet-up in the grocery store, my cousin and I have weathered some significant family losses, moves and transitions. While we no longer live in a time when the doors are left unlocked all day and all night, I have my own keys and codes to her house. I have a new house with an open door. There is always good food and great company. From time to time, the dining room table is jam-packed full of cousins, and the aunts, uncles, and grandparents come back to us through the stories and the familiar voices and gestures that bubble up from our shared DNA.
Life experience informs. The things we take for granted can be extraordinary. Magic can live in the ordinary. And each of us needs a house with an open door.
I have tasted love.
In the time before Food Network and TV chefs, long before “foodie” was a word, there were meat-roasting, soup-simmering, cookie-making, bread-baking grandmothers. My maternal grandmother, my Sita, immigrated to this country from Lebanon when she was a young woman. Unable to speak English, Sita found her voice in the kitchen. My grandmother articulated her love for us through the language of food. The table became the canvas upon which she displayed her artistry. Sita possessed a magic that could turn the simplest ingredients such as rice or lentils into delicious, exotic fare. “Food in proportion to the love,” was Sita’s motto. Neither stomachs nor souls went hungry in our grandmother’s house.
For me, Sita’s masterpiece was her raisin bread. Excitement stirred in the kitchen when raisin bread was in the making. Assisted by one or more of her seven daughters, Sita mixed the ingredients in a large wooden bowl. Soon sweet, slightly sticky dough dotted with dark raisins emerged much to the delight of her grandchildren.
Just before Sita covered the dough with her old navy blue sweater, she would give my sister and me each a small ball of the sweet, stretchy paste. Sita told us that we could play with the dough, but we should not eat it. Out the back door and onto the porch we went. Occasionally, my sister or I tossed one of the little balls into the air and caught it so Sita could see from the window that we were indeed just playing with the dough. In fact, we were nibbling away. I don’t recall the explanations we gave when our rations were consumed, but the taste and pleasure were worth any consequence. As I grew older, I realized that Sita had given us the dough to keep us quiet while the bread dough was rising, but our young selves thought we were helping, and we were eager and proud to be part of the special occasion.
After Sita died, my Aunt Lillie took to making the raisin bread just the way Sita had—same wooden bowl, same recipe, the ingredients for which were recorded only on her heart. Old enough by then, my sister and I served as our Aunt’s actual assistants in the bread-making effort. After the dough was kneaded and placed back into the bowl to rise, Aunt Lillie would send one of us to retrieve the same thin navy blue sweater our Sita had worn and used to cover the dough. As Aunt Lillie lay that old sweater across the dough-filled bowl, she would say, “And now for the love part.”
After my Aunt Lillie died, the bread making stopped. The recipe went with her. Where the sweater went I do not know, but a portion of the love that filled the sweater that covered the dough is now inside of me.
More than fifty years have passed since I first stood alongside my Sita in her bright yellow kitchen eagerly awaiting my ration of that delicious dough. Her house is gone along with the recipe. Despite the many efforts of daughters and nieces, no one has been able to replicate the exact formula for our Sita’s raisin bread, but food continues to be a centerpiece in our lives—it is a reason to gather, a source of strength, a medicine and a comfort, an offering of love in large proportions.
It is around our tables that we celebrate all of the selves we have ever been and the ones from whom we came. So, here is to grandmothers and to all of us who ate the bread, tasted the love, and who remember.