When Maturity Strikes

I have to admit, we have a pretty great kid.  True, the teen years have been trying at times, but every now and then our son, Joshua, takes a giant leap of maturity.  We first witnessed this when he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in October 2016.  What an amazing day that was as we watched Joshua, no longer a little boy, stand before his leaders and peers and promise to do his duty to God and his country and to serve other people.

Of course, being an Eagle Scout wasn’t a magic fix against the angst of the teen years, and once in a while his Dad and I had to be the heavies in a situation.  People have complimented us on how well we raised Joshua, telling us what a pleasure he was to have around.  We tilted our heads, plastered on a smile, said thank you, and thought to ourselves you only say that because you don’t live with him.  We’ve learned to chalk it up to Joshua being a typical teen.

On occasion, however, he does something that shocks his father and me to the point that we can’t quit talking about it.  Like today, for example.  Joshua works at a local grocery store one or two days a week.  It’s his first job, and he takes it quite seriously.  Already he’s making comments that let us know the good work ethic we instilled in him is paying off.

As if working hard and earning his first turkey this Thanksgiving (he was so proud) wasn’t reward enough for me and my husband, Joshua said to me, “Hey, Mom.  Why don’t you give me the grocery list, and when I get off work, I’ll do the shopping.”  Imagine the few stunned seconds that preceded, “Oh, okay…”  Where did that come from?  I know he’s extended his employee discount to us (another fact about which he was proud), but to actually expend his own time and energy shopping for the family?  Has the lesson of caring for others finally sunk in?

I made an extremely detailed list for him including brand names and item counts.  He laughed at me, but he folded it up and placed it in his wallet.  We made sure he had a secure form of payment, another thing for which he must display the ultimate responsibility, and then his father dropped him off at work.  And as I mentioned above, we could not stop talking about it all day long.

William repeatedly wondered aloud what made him offer to do the shopping.  I got tears in my eyes and immediately envisioned Joshua as the CEO of a major corporation sitting behind a mahogany desk in his top-floor office with a picture of him working at his first job in a frame with a photocopy of his first paycheck.  If you don’t understand my leap in logic, you’re probably not a woman and possibly not a mother.  In any case, I built a little wiggle room into the grocery list in case he makes a small error, and I left the choosing of flavors for certain items up to him.  Let’s pray my coaching on how to pick a good apple sticks.

Now if we can just get him to pick up his room on a daily basis.

Behind the Thanks

It seemed rather timely, and hopefully not too cliché, with Thanksgiving approaching this week to write a post in regards to the holiday.  I know many families have the tradition of stating what they are thankful for prior to eating dinner.  It’s a beautiful tradition and one that I applaud.  And while it’s true that we need reminders throughout the year to be thankful for what we have, allow me to remind you to also give thanks to people.  With that being said, I’m addressing this post to those who will receive the thanks.

I’m thinking about the ER nurse working a twelve-hour shift, the police officer running toward the sound of gunshots, the college student making a decaf sugar free double soy no whip extra foam caramel macchiato, the librarian shopping for a program on her own time, the teacher grading papers on his lunch hour, the stay-at-home mother juggling laundry, dinner, and her kids’ extracurricular activities, the power company worker who restores the electricity in the middle of a snow storm, the soldier Skyping his wife and kids.  With the exception of the stay-at-home mom, all these people work in positions for which they get paid.  But this post is not a debate on stay-at-home moms versus moms who work outside the home.

What unifies these people, and many others like them, isn’t whether or not they make money or how much they make.  In their own way, each one is a worthy worker.  Look closer and you’ll see what makes every one of these people the same is that they are in positions to serve others.  It’s a simple lesson to learn, and some come to it faster than others, but the greatest thing anyone will ever do is serve another person.

In today’s society where entitlement reigns supreme, it’s easy to become jaded to the point that one is tempted to set aside his or her integrity and believe that he or she isn’t earning enough money to make what they do worthwhile.  To those who are serving in whatever capacity, whether great or small, I give my wholehearted thanks.  I ask that you remember why you started serving in the first place, to understand that your job may be thankless but will never be purposeless, to do the right thing even when no one is looking, to not measure your ability to serve successfully by the amount of a paycheck, to rest confident in the reward that is a job well done, and to keep serving when all others have given up.

Examine the act of service a little deeper, and you’ll find a concept that is rapidly disappearing from our society:  sacrifice.  To give something up willingly for the sake of others is the true definition of service.  In fact, I don’t believe you can serve another without a measure of sacrifice involved.  So stay strong.  It’s hard, I know, but you are being seen for what you do.  True, you may never know, but your selfless service will not go unrewarded.

God Bless and Happy Thanksgiving.

The Ashtray

A low rumble buzzed in the little dog’s chest. His wet obsidian eyes watched the young man moving about the room gathering items and folding clothes to be placed in the suitcase lying open on the bed. Gary Hoover didn’t pay the terrier mix no mind; he knew the dog took its cue from its mistress. His mother got the dog when Gary was three; she called the mongrel her second son.

Like any other day, today found Lisbeth Hoover installed in her favorite armchair with the dog wedged between the ham of her thigh and the armrest. One massive hand with fingers splayed across the dog’s back lent comfort to the agitated beast. The other held her trademark Marlboro, and the candy dish on the table beside her overflowed with ash.

“Peppy don’t like whatch yer doin’,” Lisbeth said.

“I can’t do it nowhere else,” Gary replied.

He considered pulling the curtain across the wire strung from one side of the living room to the other. His father put up the makeshift divider when they moved in to the miniature apartment. He had secured the heavy gauge wire he brought home from work with eyebolts in the burgundy walls.

“Looks like a whorehouse in here,” Lisbeth had complained.

“Yeah…well…”

His father never finished his sentence. He never finished looking for a job that would pay for an apartment where Gary could have a real bedroom. He also never finished his marriage or his promise to teach Gary how to pitch a baseball. The only thing he finished doing was leaving bruises on Lisbeth’s face and arms. Gary was five when they had moved in, six when his father left.

That was the day Lisbeth sat down. She sat and smoked, watching the sun come up and continuing long after Gary had gone to bed. His ample mother smoked and became a mountain of flesh spilling over the chair, conforming it to her shape. Every few years, a new chair had to be found in a secondhand store and dragged home because they didn’t own a car and had no friend’s willing to haul it for them. Lisbeth and Gary ended up on some kind of assistance because his mother couldn’t work. He really never did know why.

What he did know was that their life was as secondhand as the chairs his mother ruined. Food stamps, government cheese, turkeys and hams from the Catholic Church every Thanksgiving and Christmas, clothing and shoes from the Salvation Army. Fist fights behind the school for wearing items recognized by their former owners. The fabric of their existence reeked with the smoke of failure not unlike the flowered upholstery covering his mother’s latest acquisition.

the-ashtrayThe only nice thing they owned was the carnival glass candy dish his father’s mother had given Lisbeth on her wedding day. As a toddler, Gary earned a hard smack to this pudgy hand the first time he ever reached for the dish. His blue eyes, level with the table where the dish sat, never released the brimming tears. He could stare for hours at the amber glass shimmering with rainbow iridescence, and often did, falling asleep in front of the table on which it stood as if reluctant to abandon a sacred shrine.

His grandmother would cover him with a blanket. His mother started using the candy dish as an ashtray. His family was told to find someplace else to live, and Gary never saw his grandmother again. At least they were allowed to take the ashtray with them as they began the house-hopping journey that led them to this place.

The beautiful dish couldn’t contain the quantity of ash Lisbeth deposited within its fluted borders. Even she knew it wasn’t suitable for the purpose to which it had been condemned. Gary always emptied the dish two or three times a day without being asked or thanked. He would barely have it back in place before another inch of spent tobacco would drop off. Sometimes it would land on the table or chair, and once on Lisbeth’s threadbare dress, and burn an abstract pattern into whatever it touched.

Less mesmerizing than the carnival glass was the never-ending smoke curling upward from the tip of Lisbeth’s cigarette. It trailed through the bird’s nest of grizzled hair framing his mother’s face, staining the gray yellow, before it moved on to touch the doilies, lampshades, and ceiling with its filthy fingers. His mother, ensconced in the arm chair in the dark corner of the red room with the shades pulled and smoke wreathed about her head, presented a glimpse into hell.

“What’s this fancy school got you think you need so bad?” Lisbeth asked. She ran her big paw over Peppy’s head, stretching his eyes until the whites showed and yanking his ears.

“I earned me a place with my good grades. You’d of known if you’d come to graduation.”

“In what—this piece of shit dress? All I ever had I gave up for you. I was the one that stayed, remember?”

What Gary remembered was every bitter word his mother used to fight his father for not being the man she loved. He waited for the familiar version of events to spill from Lisbeth’s slack mouth.

“I didn’t ask for his sorry hand in marriage. That was my daddy’s doing when he learnt you was on the way. I coulda been a soldier’s wife, going to fancy military balls and wearing long dresses and pearls. Your daddy, your real daddy, was a marine.”

Gary’s hands trembled as he buckled the straps in the suitcase then closed the lid and locked it.

“I’m going to study mathematics at the university, and I got a job at a warehouse loading trucks to help pay,” Gary said.

“Well you be sure to send notice of your highfalutin self to your daddy living over in Coyle with his new wife and kids.”

The young man stood with his suitcase gripped in one hand, a bus ticket in the other. He wasn’t sure how much of what his mother said was true or which man she spoke of. His eyes were trained like a pointer’s on the only door leading out of their firetrap apartment. He tucked his ticket under his arm, walked to the door, opened it, and said, “I’m leaving for school now, Momma.”

“I see that, Son.”

Another caterpillar of ash crept from Lisbeth’s cigarette.  She watched it fall on the growing pyramid in the beautiful ashtray.

What I Like About Being an American

What I Like About Being an AmericanI developed an interest in Indian cooking after watching the movie The Lunchbox. The main character, Ila, infused her cooking with beautiful, artistic expression in the form of spices. I enjoyed watching her hands move as she seasoned her culinary creations without the benefit of measuring spoons. Her spice box caught my attention and held my interest.

I mentioned this to a former co-worker, Bina, who is Indian. She was surprised that I enjoyed the movie, and we had a lovely discussion on Indian food. She suggested the movie The Hundred Foot Journey which further fueled my desire to learn Indian cooking. Bina invited me and three co-workers to her home for an introduction to the world of Indian cuisine.

One of the first things she explained was masala. I assumed masala was a set combination of spices used in a particular recipe. I had seen garam masala and madras masala in markets selling exotic foods. However, like curry, masala changes depending on the country and regions within said country. Bina didn’t own anything among her spices bottled and labeled masala. What she had were individual spices that she knew how to blend perfectly without measuring to create the flavor the recipe required.

Still, I didn’t quite understand masala, but I kept Bina’s comments and instructions in mind, specifically when she said she has a dessert masala, a chicken masala, and a vegetable masala. I Googled a few Indian recipes and tried them. They were good, and many of the spices Bina owns and uses were featured, but something was missing. My desire to cook Indian food was stifled by a concept I wasn’t grasping. I took a break from pursuing it and kept making recipes with which I am familiar.

One day I decided to make chili for dinner. When it came time to season the chili, jars were opened and contents sprinkled over the simmering pot until the quantity on the surface looked right and I stirred them in. A little tasting, a few more dashes of this or that, and I allowed the chili to simmer for a while. I always taste again before it’s completely cooked just to see if the flavors are balanced and add anything as needed. That’s when it hit me: the combination of spices I used was my chili masala which I return to every time I make it. I know how chili should taste to me, but I’m sure if I visited Texas or other chili-making regions of America, I’d experience other spice combinations.

I laughed to myself as my favorite seasoning combination for chicken came to mind. Then I realized I had been on the cusp of understanding the beautiful concept of masala several years ago when I attempted to swap ground ginger for fresh. The ground variety tastes savory and what I describe as classically American. Think Thanksgiving. But the recipe I was making needed the lemony zestiness of fresh ginger, that classically Asian flavor, because I was cooking a Chinese dish. Herbs de Provence is another example of a spice combination that will reflect the nuances of the person cooking with it. Just like masala, there are some spices that will always appear in the mix, but people love to alter it based on their preferences or just to add a dash of mystery.

What I Like About Being an American 2What I learned about masala, about seasoning food in general, is why I like being an American. Where else can you experience a merging of cultures that bring amazing culinary skills from their own countries so that everyone can enjoy them in one place? The great American melting pot starts in our kitchens and ends with the united flavors of America. I have returned to Indian cooking, and while I use the spices to which Bina introduced me, I suspect that my masala may not taste exactly like what she would expect. But that’s okay.

Baring My Writer’s Soul – Part 14

Writer's Soul 14I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my writing, and I don’t mean in quantity. Rather, I’ve been thinking a lot of different things about what my writing is or isn’t.

It started last year around November when my novel was technically finished. There were a few minor points that needed to be re-researched (is that even a word), and I had a wonderful research librarian who I met at the Conneaut D-day Reenactment assisting me. The whole process was starting to bog me down. I began to hate it, resent it, and wanted to dig a deep hole in my back yard in which I could bury my book without any witnesses.

The holidays were coming, and since much of the preparation for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas fell to me, I really didn’t have anything left to give my writing. I didn’t want my writing to suffer, but I felt so guilty about setting it aside. After all, what kind of writer would I be if I wasn’t writing every single day? Good question.

While wrestling with this dilemma and wanting to be able to focus on all the fun that comes with the holidays, I ran into our pastor’s wife at the local grocery store. After the usual pleasantries, she asked after my novel. I told her what I’ve already mentioned above and concluded that I wish someone would give me the permission to quit for a little while. If I could just take a break, I knew I would go back to writing in January once I was refreshed.

She looked at me and said, “Heather, I give you permission to quit.”

Even now I laugh at how easy it was for someone else to grant me the grace I needed to give myself but was unable to. And guess what? I did go back to the writing and research in January as I promised myself I would. In fact, I attacked it with renewed vigor and produced better writing than I would have had I pressed myself to go on through November and December. What’s more, I enjoyed it!

So what’s the point of this blog post you may ask? It still scares me somewhat that I took off two months of much needed rest time. There are so many writing books, and I imagine books devoted to other forms of art, that will tell you to create every day without fail. Are these people right in tasking others in this way?

Yes and no. If I said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. You have to find out what works for you. Thankfully, the day I returned to writing coincided with Chapter 11 of Heather Seller’s book, Page After Page. The writing exercises in this chapter were wonderful for getting me back on my rails. You’ll understand this better when you read the book which I highly recommend you do.

The funny thing was, while Chapter 11 worked for me, I recalled that before the holidays, Chapter 10 flipped me out. This is the beauty of the book. The next time I read it, Chapter 10 may be exactly what my writing needs. All this to say, don’t be afraid to embrace the bad (insert chosen art form here) because you may uncover a gem on the way to the good (insert chosen art form here).

In doing so, your creativity will flow and your art will come naturally. There are going to be different amounts of flow, and that’s to be expected. Don’t despair over these days even if they extend into weeks, months, or years. Begin again in small ways, flex your creative muscles, and build up to your peak performance like an athlete training for the Olympics. You will achieve gold.

Write Happy!

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