Adventures of the Amoeba Squad

The memory that haunts me is more of a composite memory, really. The events all happened when I was so young that my mind has sort of squashed them all together, kind of like a memory meatloaf.

It involves the summers I spent as a child with my aunts at their cottage on Lake Michigan. The Aunts were my father’s four sisters who never married, never lived alone, never made a move without first consulting each other.  My father was not on speaking terms with them for most of my formative years, and my sisters and I secretly referred to them as The Amoeba

My aunts had no children of their own, but they were firmly convinced that they were experts at child-rearing.  In all matters of discipline, education, nutrition and entertainment, they knew it all.  God help anyone who dared disagree with the Amoeba, which also explains a lot about why my mother’s relationship with them wasn’t all that terrific, either.

Aunt Marian, for example, couldn’t see the nutritional difference between sugary cereals and a candy bar, so we routinely ate Snickers bars for breakfast. She believed that dairy products could soothe an upset tummy, which meant that we ate ice cream between bouts of vomiting when we had the flu.

I cringe now that I’m a mother, but oh, man, did I love the food at my aunts’ house!

The Aunts also had some strange beliefs about what was and was not appropriate for children.  Actually, they had some strange beliefs about a lot of things. Aunt Verna believed that douching with warm Pepsi could prevent pregnancy, so all pop served to teenage girls in that house was served on ice, thank you very much.  She saw that as her way of preventing teenage sex. As teenagers, my sisters and I loved to come home from dates and make a big show of pouring ourselves a big, tall glass of warm Pepsi, just to mess with her mind.

But the memories that haunt me don’t involve dating, douching, or Pepsi.

Not just for drinking anymore.
Not just for drinking anymore.

My aunts were addicted to police scanners.  They were four of the nosiest people in the world, and they discovered scanners about the time they realized that their nineteen sets of binoculars and two telescopes just weren’t bringing in enough information.  They had a scanner in the living room, a scanner in the kitchen, and Aunt Marian had her own personal scanner in the bedroom.

They memorized the police codes, and they knew precisely when some juicy, gossip-worthy event was taking place anywhere in the county. And if those events took place in the middle of the night, the aunts saw nothing wrong in waking us up and taking us for a ride to the scene in the trusty family station wagon, also known as Wag, the unofficial eighth member of our tribe.

“Up and at ‘em, Girls!” Aunt Marian would crow. “There’s a fire at the old five-and-dime!” or “They’ve found a body down by the marina!”  We’d stumble into the clothes she tossed us and wrap up in our matching white windbreakers – yes, we all seven wore matching white windbreakers everywhere we went. On foggy nights, I think we probably traumatized quite a few other spectators when we materialized out of the gloom like some demented Amoeba Squad.

It seems like there were always bodies being hauled out of the lake.  That sounds pretty grim, but it never seemed that way to me as a kid.  My aunts had made it abundantly clear to us that the water could be dangerous when not regarded with the proper respect and caution.  Drownings were a part of summer life at the beach.  Boats capsized, teenagers were overcome after diving from the pier, little children wandered away from parents.  It was just something that happened, and my aunts believed that exposing us to that ugly truth was an appropriate way of teaching us to respect the water.

In retrospect, I shudder to think of the things we saw. To a certain extent, I can understand my aunts’ fascination with drowning, because two of their brothers were killed in a boating accident in the 1950’s, but I still cannot begin to comprehend the logic of taking three little girls along to stand in a crowd to see a body loaded up and taken away.

The night I remember most vividly, we waited on the pier amid a growing crowd for what seemed like hours.  Rumor had it that the body had been found a few miles out and they were having trouble retrieving it.  It had been in the water for quite some time, they said, and was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine gender at that time.  I don’t know what standard procedure is in a situation like that, or whether any of the rumors were true, but the general consensus was that the body was so far gone that it couldn’t even be picked up out of the water; it was said that the Coast Guard had to scoop a body bag around it and drag it behind the boat.

I strongly doubt that’s what really happened.   But I stood there with the rest of them, clustered around the North Pier’s old white lighthouse that’s been gone for almost thirty years now.  We craned our necks and murmured theories about who it might be, and every once in a while someone would shout when they thought they saw a boat somewhere on the horizon.

I don’t think they ever actually brought a body in that night.  Or if they did, I have forgotten the details.  I remember giving up and shuffling back home, where we brushed the sand from our bare feet and hung our seven white windbreakers on seven hooks before crawling back into our beds.

We were terribly disappointed, and that’s the part that haunts me.  A human being, someone’s son or daughter, died in Lake Michigan, and we were disappointed because we didn’t get to see the body dragged out of the water.  A life ended.  Somewhere, a heart broke and a soul mourned the loss of a loved one, and I was part of a group of ghouls watching, waiting to see the gory results.

I remember that night every time I drive past a car accident and see the gawkers slowing down, or when I see a house fire on the news with clusters of onlookers waiting to see if anyone died.   I feel that same sense of shame, and I force myself to look the other way.

The memory that haunts me is the memory that makes me turn away from watching somebody’s pain, someone else’s loss, because I never want to be part of that crowd again.  Not even if I could still fit into the old white windbreaker.

***

This post is part of Finish the Sentence Friday, in which writers and bloggers finish a sentence and “link up” their posts. This week’s sentence was “The memory that haunts me is . . . ”  

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Epic Fail!

tent

Whenever I hear the term “Epic Fail,” I think of the time my family went on a camping trip with my husband’s brothers and their families.

There was a time when we went on these trips together at least once every summer.  Each family brought their own tent and supplies, and we all shared one central fire and picnic area.  Our kids got to run wild with their cousins, and we adults had an opportunity to spend time with each other and remember how much fun we could have as a family.  It was a great bonding experience, a wonderful bit of family togetherness to cherish.

That’s how it usually worked, anyway.

The trip I remember as a failure took place over a long holiday weekend, although I don’t remember now exactly what holiday it was.  We only had our two oldest kids at that time.  They were almost old enough to have a bit of independence, but not quite; their cousins were all just old enough to be in charge if we let the five of them go off together without parental supervision.

Remember that.  It will be very important later in the story.

When we arrived at the campsite Friday night, Middle Brother’s family had their tent set up and their supplies stacked around one of the picnic tables.  We unloaded, pitched our tent, and sat down for a little chat while waiting for Little Brother and his family.   I grabbed my Diet Coke, plunked myself down on the bench of one of the picnic tables, and very quickly realized that the bench was not bolted to the rest of the table.

The other end flipped up like something out of an old slapstick movie, tossing me on my butt in the middle of the coolers and backpacks.  Everybody got a good laugh, I got some nice bruises and a funny story to tell, and life went on. With a replacement picnic table, naturally.

Back then, we always had to choose campgrounds close to home because our dog was not socialized at all.  There was no way we could have brought her along on our camping trips, and we had no one to dog-sit for us, which meant that we always had to make a few trips home each day to let her in and out and give her some company.  On the first night of this camping trip, we waited until the kids were asleep in our tent with their aunts and uncles to watch over them, and headed home to tend to Kipper.

It was a fifteen-minute drive.  Our driveway was dark and uneven, and I stepped out of the car and into a hole; I twisted my ankle, lost my balance, and rolled down the hill toward the pine tree.

“Where the hell did you go?” the Big Guy shouted.

“Mrph!” I yelled back, which translates roughly to, “Yuck, I think I landed in dog shit and there are pine needles in my mouth.”

“You stink,” he said helpfully as he pulled me up to my feet.  “I think you might have landed in something.”

After I showered, he wrapped my ankle and helped me back into the car for the ride back to the campground.  Two falls in less than five hours really didn’t prepare me for a night on the ground in a sleeping bag, so I was not in a great mood by the following morning when I dragged myself to the bathrooms.

There was a small play area near the public restrooms, and a tiny child was playing all alone on the swing set.  I smiled as I watched her swing higher and higher; she reminded me of my own daughter at that age, and I started feeling better as warm, nostalgic feelings flooded through me.  Right up until the little one lost her grip on the swing and fell right on her face in the sand.

I helped her up and tried to brush some of the sand off.  She had these great big blue eyes and her lower lip was trembling, and my heart just melted.  Poor thing, I thought.  Scared by a big fall, and now a complete stranger was all in her face brushing sand off her.

“Is it okay if I help you wipe your face?” I asked, as gently as possible.

She nodded. I want to be very clear on that:  She nodded.  She gave me permission to wipe her face.

And then she bit me.

Right on my index finger, deep enough to break the skin and draw blood.  Then she tore off across the field, howling, “Stranger danger! Stranger danger!” at the top of her lungs.

I ducked into the bathroom and stayed in there a little longer than was really necessary.   By the time I hobbled back to our campsite, the coffee was ready.  The Big Guy helped me set up my chair and a nice log as a footrest for my damaged ankle, and then treated my injured finger.  There were definitely times when it came in handy to be married to a fireman.

My daughter crawled out of our tent a short time later and took one look at my propped-up sprained ankle and my bandaged finger.  “Mom, your hair looks really bad today,” she announced.

Lovely set of priorities.

The weekend went downhill from there.  Little Brother’s wife and I took the car into town for supplies later that day and burned out a bearing in our car.  I don’t know what or where a bearing is, but apparently it’s never a good thing to keep driving when there is smoke pouring out of any part of a moving vehicle.  Live and learn, I suppose.

The lake was experiencing unusually low water levels that summer, so the Big Guy had trouble launching our fishing boat.  He backed the truck into the lake all the way up to the axle, and still the water was too shallow to float the boat off the trailer.  He finally became so irritated that he drove out of the water, boat and all, and kept right on going without a word to any of us – past our campsite, out the front drive, and on down the road.

“I don’t think we’re using the boat this weekend,” Middle Brother observed as we watched him go.

By the time the Big Guy reappeared a few hours later – without the boat but in a better mood – it had started raining.  I am not talking about a little trickle.  Not even one of those huge, sudden downpours or gullywashers that hit hard and then stop.  I am talking about heavy, steady, solid sheets of rain that fell with no sign of stopping.

For the next two days.

Have I mentioned that we were in tents?  Everything got wet and stayed that way.  Everything.  Everyone.  Everywhere.

Luckily for all of us, the campground had a very nice community building with a room full of board games and other fun activities for the kids.  With the three older cousins in charge of our two little ones, we felt safe sending them off for an afternoon of fun, unsupervised dry play.

In retrospect, that was probably not a wise decision.

I should explain a little something about these particular five kids.  They are all very smart, good kids.  Well, three of the five are adults by now, but still very smart, good adults.  They have never been the type to get into trouble.  But there is a problem when their youngest and my oldest get together: as a team, they very nearly have nuclear capability.  They come up with crazy ideas together that neither one of them would ever think up alone.  And when they start plotting and egging each other along, it has never occurred to any of the other three to run for an adult. Or the police, for that matter.

On this occasion, one of Trouble Twins suggested that it might be fun to roll down the steep, grassy hill outside the community building. And it was fun; they did it over and over and over for hours.  They did it until the grass became even more slippery with mud, and still they continued rolling in it.  By the time they wore themselves out, they were no longer recognizable as children.

They were faceless, indistinguishable mudballs with feet.

I dragged mine back to the community building and pushed them into a shower stall, fully clothed.  Eventually, I had to climb in with them to help scrub mud out of a few crevices that really embarrassed all three of us.  Of course, I lost a contact lens in the process.

Of course.

The last day of the trip dawned clear and dry and beautiful.  We hung our wet clothes – and blankets, sleeping bags, and towels – and sat back to enjoy the gorgeous Michigan sunshine, trying desperately to salvage a tiny bit of fun out of our disaster weekend.

Only to discover that we are the kind of people who are bored out of our minds when everything goes well.

“Epic Failure” for my family meant rolling with the punches – or rolling down hills in some cases – when things went wrong.  It meant that we had the absolute worst camping trip ever, a trip when everything went wrong, and still had a blast. It turned out to be the weekend that gave us some of our favorite family memories as one of the best weekends ever.

Epic Fail?  We can never fail as long as we remember to enjoy the disasters.

***

This post is part of Finish the Sentence Friday, in which writers and bloggers finish a sentence and “link up” their posts. This week’s sentence was “Whenever I hear the term “Epic Fail,” I think of the time…”  

For information on Finish the Sentence Friday, Join our Facebook page! 

***

If you enjoyed this and would like to read more of my work, please take a moment to check out Have a Goode One, a collection of some of my earlier blog posts that are no longer available online.

Thankful

I prepared my first Thanksgiving dinner the first year I was married.  We bought a very small turkey and I used one of those turkey-cooking bags that are specifically designed for morons, which was really an appropriate choice for me. I went a little bit overboard with the side dishes:  stuffing, yams, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits . . . basically, the equivalent of month’s food budget in one overcooked meal.

It was hard for us to figure out how to juggle his family, my family, our family, my step-family, his grandmother, his other grandmother . . .

Gradually, I stopped making a meal on Thanksgiving.  It really didn’t seem to be worth the expense or effort since we were all stuffed to bursting already from all of the family gatherings.  In case I haven’t mentioned it before, my ex-husband’s family are simply not normal people when it comes to preparing food.  These people have traveled down from the Heavens above to grace our taste buds with divine ambrosia, with the food of the Gods, with flavor combinations that can make a strong man weep tears of ecstasy.   As I am fond of telling people, even the forks taste good when these people start cooking.

If my former mother-in-law served a plate of bricks for dinner, we would dive right in and enjoy every bite of those bricks.

But I digress.

Over the years, our families have dwindled, and so have our gatherings.  His grandmothers are both gone; my father and aunts are gone as well.  Most of the nieces and nephews have grown and moved on into their own lives, trying to juggle multiple get-togethers just like we did as newlyweds.

And we are divorced now.  This is my first Thanksgiving without The Big Guy.  Without his mom or his brothers and their wives, without his aunts and uncles and cousins who made me one of them for the last eighteen years.  Whether we met at Aunt June and Uncle Fred’s, or at Aunt Jan and Uncle Dale’s, I was never just their in-law.  I was family, right from the start.  They accepted me as one of them.   His cousins became my cousins.

The first time I met his grandmother, I asked her what she wanted me to call her.  I was expecting “Mrs. Meyer” or perhaps “Virgie.”  Instead, she looked at me as though I had asked her the stupidest question ever asked, and instructed me to call her “Grandma.”  Of course.  What else?

Duh.

I don’t think The Big Guy ever realized what a precious gift he gave me by sharing his family or how honored I am by their continued love and support despite the divorce.  My own family was so different.  Grandma lived in Arkansas and made it very clear that I was not her favorite; I can count on one hand the number of times I ever received a kiss or hug from her. My cousins in Arkansas and Oklahoma seem to be very nice people, and their wives are absolute darlings.  One of my greatest wishes in life is to meet them someday outside of Facebook.   My other cousins live less than an hour away, and we are all really making an effort to regain some kind of closeness, some of the camaraderie we shared as children.

Overall, though, my family has become my sister, her children, and my children.  And that’s just going to have to be enough for now.  Someday, I may fall in love again, but I just don’t know if I’ll ever fall in love with an entire family again.

For the time being, I am planning my Thanksgiving dinner for the first time in over a decade.  I have a twenty-two pound turkey, which is exactly ten pounds over my current lifting restrictions, so getting that baby in and out of my oven is going to be an adventure.  I will keep it simple, with only the side dishes that I know my children will eat, and I will follow it up with the obligatory pumpkin pie and my much-requested chocolate-chip cheesecake.

I’m going to set the table with my grandmother’s Depression Glass dishes, and I’ll be setting out an extra plate for the excellent young man who is dating my daughter.  A rite of passage in its own way, about which I am in complete denial, but that’s a subject for another day.

And you know what?  I’m actually looking forward to Thanksgiving on my own this year.  On my terms, in my way, with my family.

As long as I can get someone to get the turkey out of the oven for me.

Bombs Away

I’m about to reach a new professional low by discussing something that happened to me at Wal-Mart a while ago.  Hang on, folks; A.J. is about to go lowbrow.

I didn’t realize there is a name for what happened to me.  Actually, I didn’t even realize it was a thing that needed to be named.

We had gone to Wal-Mart as a family on a Sunday afternoon, as we often did back when my ex and I were still together.  Say what you will about Wal-Mart and the type of people that shop there, but a trip to Wal-Mart can be considered a family social outing for those of us who live in towns with less than 500 people.

The Big Guy took the boys to do whatever it is that the male of the species does when released into the wilds of a Wal-Mart.  I only know that this involves toys, electronics, automotive, sporting goods, hardware and the clearance aisle – all in the amount of time it takes me to say, “Oooh, look, BOGO!”

The Princess, who already owns enough clothes to dress the entire continent of Africa, took off for the ladies clothing department.  I hit the nearby boys’ department to look for cheap pants for my youngest, because the child has never yet met the pair of pants that he can’t blow the knees out of in under a week.   I found a shelf full of little boy pants with reinforced knees and bent over to search for his size.

And that’s when it happened.

It hit me slowly, caught me by surprise.  I stood up and looked around, thinking that surely I must be mistaken.  But no, there it was again.

I had a brief Steve Urkel moment.  Dear God, I thought, did I do that?

urkel

Then it really hit, and I knew there was no way that could have come out of my body without my knowledge.

Or quite possibly an episiotomy.

Wave upon wave of stench so strong that the very air around me shimmered like summer heat over a blacktop road.   My eyes watered, my stomach churned; I covered my mouth to keep from gagging, only to realize that this left my nose as my only means of getting oxygen and there was just no way in hell I wanted to breath that in through my nose.

I expected to hear alarms going off at any minute, or for the cloud of toxic gas to trigger the sprinkler system at the very least.  For an instant, I thought about using my cell phone to text the Big Guy to save the children.

I looked around again, assuming that someone nearby must be in the process of taking a crap right there in the middle of Wal-Mart.  But no, there was no one in my immediate area.

No one but me, that is.

There were two women standing a few racks away from me, giving me dirty looks and waving their hands in front of their faces to clear the air.  To my left, a tidy-looking gray-haired woman was hauling ass toward the electronics department with a huge smile on her face.  To my right, my daughter was laughing so hard that she was on the brink of passing out.

“What the hell just happened?”  I demanded.

“You got fart-bombed, Mom,” she giggled.

“Excuse me?”

“Fart-bombed.  You know, when you’re in public and you’ve got to fart, so you look around until you see somebody who looks like the kind of person who would fart in public,” she explained.  “Then you walk behind them and let it go and just keep walking, and everybody thinks it was the other person, not you.”

I thought about the little gray-haired woman.  Well, that certainly explained the smile.   I’d be smiling too if I’d just released something that noxious from my body.  Good Lord, that poor woman probably felt as though she had just given birth to a 20-pound alien baby.

“Well,” I said, “She’s either heading for the Women’s’ department for new underwear, or the ladies’ room to wipe.”

Then a thought occurred to me.

“Wait a minute.  You’re saying that I look like someone who would fart in public?”

“Well . . . .”

“Seriously? That woman blasted one out behind me because I look like a good person to blame for that?”

My daughter is no fool.  She said the only safe thing she could possibly say at that moment.

“I love you, Mommy?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I now wear only formal attire to my local Wal-Mart. Ain’t nobody gonna fart-bomb a woman in heels and pearls.

A Family Matter

It’s easy to be selfish. I’ve been so overwhelmed lately by all of the things going on in my life that I’ve had a hard time focusing on anything or anyone but myself.  Going back to work, trying to finish His Heart Aflame, planning for my upcoming book signing at Octoberfest. I’ve been scrambling to pay bills with money I haven’t earned yet, stressing about my books, my job, my bills, my kids.

Me, me, me. It’s all about me.

Until this morning, when my daughter said, “Nick’s been in a car accident, Mom.”

Let me backtrack. “Nick” is not one of my kids.  Not one of my nephews or cousins or any kind of a blood relation.  He’s one of my daughter’s friends, the son of one of my friends.  A good kid, but not one of mine.

Still, the world stopped for a moment. Just until she read a little farther down the Facebook post and found out that he’s going to be okay.  Shaken up, a bit bruised and royally pissed off about getting some points on his license, but okay.

I don’t like this part of parenting. I’m a worrier; yes, I am that mom.  I’m the mom who always expects the worst when it comes to my kids’ safety.  I am both fiercely overprotective and ridiculously pessimistic.  I am constantly afraid of all of the horrible things that could happen to my babies.  If I had it my way, they would never learn to drive or leave the house unescorted.   I wish I could wrap all three in big safety bubbles and watch them every second of every minute of every day, just to keep them safe.

I go overboard with the worrying about my own kids, but I am not supposed to worry about other people’s kids like this. They aren’t mine.  It’s not my place.

But this is a small town. Most of these kids have known each other since preschool or at least early elementary.  Some have known each other since birth.  They don’t all like each other; there are definite cliques in our tiny school, just as there are in larger schools.

But these guys know each other, and we parents know them.  We watch out for each other, either to protect or to keep track of the gossip about whose kid did what.  Our kids compete to see who will get the best grades, who will be the best football player, who will be Valedictorian.  And the parents?  We compare notes and we brag about our kids, and I think we’ve all had our moments of feeling a bit smug when one of ours came out on top.

But when one of our kids is hurt, we aren’t just a small town. We are more than a community.  We are a family.

When one of our kids is hurt, we don’t care who got better grades or who made into the Homecoming Court. It doesn’t matter if someone’s parent offended someone else’s parent, or even if our kids were fighting with each other.

All that matters is, Is he going to be okay?

As our kids get older and gain more freedom from us, they face more dangers and we face more fears. Most of them are driving now, which means we have so much more to worry about.  One boy broke his neck in an accident on icy roads last winter; another broke a femur in a head-on collision with a drunk driver in May, and now Nick rolled his Dad’s truck trying to avoid a Sandhill Crane in the middle of the road.

When one of our kids is hurt, I don’t just think, wow, that could have been mine.  I think, I remember when he went to Little League All-Stars with my son.    I think, I remember when he used to call my daughter ten times a day and then hang up in a panic when a grown-up answered the phone.  I think, Hey, I promised my kid I’d invite that boy over for dinner someday.

I think, No, we can’t lose these kids. The world needs them.  God, please keep protecting them!

And then life goes on. We put on a little more make-up to cover the new worry lines, and we joke about our kids giving us more gray hairs, and we go back to work.  Back to parenting, back to worrying, back to praying that God will keep them safe one more time through one more close call.

And we hug them a little tighter, hold them a little closer, try so hard not to let them go.

Even when they aren’t our own.

The Language of Food

Whenever my family hosted a get-together and potluck, I was always told to bring the paper plates or cups.  Maybe the drinks.  But under no circumstances was I ever allowed to actually cook anything for my family. I don’t know if it was because I was the last one to remain single and they assumed I didn’t know how to cook or if they took exception to my messy kitchen and assumed my food would kill them.

They were probably right on both counts.

Then I got married to a man whose mother is one of God’s greatest gifts to the culinary arts.  This woman is incapable of making anything that tastes bad.  When she cooks, something as simple as toast can bring on moans of ecstasy; even the forks taste good at her house.

When I married her son, she gave me a box of hand-written recipe cards with all of the family recipes.  And by “family recipes,” I mean recipes from her mother, grandmother, sisters and aunts – people who create the same kind of magic in the kitchen.  It took me a few years to realize what a treasure that little box was, but it eventually became one of my most valued possessions.  In fact, during the divorce, my ex-husband and I argued more over custody of that box than custody of our children.

She gave me everything I needed to become a better cook.  Not just the recipes, but a 24-hour helpline when I screwed up.  Learning to cook with her family was like being admitted to a secret society.  Giving me that little box was her way of saying “Welcome to the family.”

Nobody leaves her house hungry.  Ever.  Not under any circumstances.  It would be a crime against nature to walk away from such divine fare with an empty belly.  But in her family, food is about more than filling one’s belly.  It’s a message.  Cookies can say everything from  “thank you for mowing my lawn” to “I want to remind you that I love you.”  A German chocolate cake on my birthday says “I love you enough to remember that this is your favorite.”   A big pan of chicken and dumplings says “I know you are hurting and I don’t know how to make it all better.”   Even a simple crock pot full of pulled pork says “I want my family to get together so I can see you all!”

A handful of freshly-written recipe cards a few weeks ago meant “I still love you.”

I used her dessert recipes more than any others.  Grandma Tice’s Sugar Cookies.  Aunt Neva’s Peanut Butter Cookies.  Quagmire Bars.  Grandma Goodwin’s Applesauce Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Peanut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes.

 

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The No-Bakes became my specialty during the summer of 2011, when I was pretty well immobilized in a brace after breaking my neck in a car accident.   I couldn’t do anything by myself, but the one thing I truly missed was being able to bake goodies for my family.  I couldn’t bend over the oven or lift the cookie sheets, so my family ended up eating store-bought cookies.

Which is simply not done around here, so I became the queen of the peanut-butter no-bakes.  Batch after batch after batch.  I made them for my family.  I made them as thank-you gifts for the people who helped us after the accident.  I made them at least once a week, sometimes more.  And a strange thing happened.

People started requesting my no-bakes.  I don’t know why.  No-bake cookies are no-bake cookies.  A simple recipe, easy to duplicate.  And yet somehow, mine earn praise when I least expect it.  And I don’t know why.

I haven’t tampered with my mother-in-law’s recipe.  Good Lord, that would be like trying to edit “Huck Finn” or improve upon the Mona Lisa.  No, one does not tweak perfection.

  • When a local boy graduated from high school and went on a Mission trip with the church, he told everyone all he wanted was one batch of my cookies to take with him.
  • When a friend sponsored a blood drive in honor of her late father, she asked if I would provide a batch of no-bakes for the event.
  • When I asked a new friend if she needed anything for her daughter’s graduation party, she shot me a sideways look and muttered, “I’ve heard about your famous no-bake cookies. . . ?”
  • When parents are asked to bring a dish to pass at different events, I am rarely given a chance to choose what to bring. It’s a given that I will bring my no-bakes.

It took a lot of years and a lot of baking, but I am finally starting to understand my in-laws’ trick of speaking with food.  When I make a batch of my no-bakes, I am saying “Thank you for thinking I’m a good cook” or “I’m so flattered that you like these!”  I’m saying “I’m thrilled to be a part of your special event.”  I’m saying “You are special to me, and I want to do something special for you.”

When people ask for my cookies, they sometimes act as though they are worried about imposing on me.  They offer to buy the ingredients or pay for the cookies, but they don’t realize that they are speaking to me in the language of food as well.  Every request for my cookies is someone saying “I care about you and want to make you part of this event” or “I value our friendship and feel safe asking you for this.”  And as petty as it may seem, I also hear “You don’t have to bring the cups and plates any more.  I trust your cooking.  You’re as good as the rest of us.”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a T-ball awards party this afternoon, and I have cookies to make.

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Goodwin Family Peaut Butter Oatmeal No-Bakes

  • 1/2 butter (1 stick)
  • 1/2 Cup milk
  • 2 Cups sugar
  • 3 Cups oatmeal
  • 1 Cup peanut butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Heat butter, milk and sugar over medium heat until it reaches a full rolling boil.  Let it boil for 90 seconds. Less time leaves them gooey, more will make them crumbly.

Remove from heat.  Stir in oatmeal until thoroughly mixed.  Add peanut butter and vanilla.  Mix well, and drop spoonfulls on waxed paper.

Here are my “tricks” when it comes to these cookies:  Always use cheap peanut butter (I don’t know why, but that’s what MIL says, and I always obey).  Use butter, not margarine. Last but not least, if you make a double batch, use the whole 18 oz jar.  Trust me on this one.

Daily Prompt: Linger

We have a saying in my family that is repeated every time there is a death in the family:  “A Foote good-bye lasts longer than the visit.”

Technically, I am not a Foote; my grandmother was a Foote before marrying my grandfather.  I’m a little shaky on all of the details about how many siblings she had, or where she fell as far as birth order.  I wasn’t raised in a Foote-friendly environment, but I heard plenty of stories about them from my father and his four sisters.

With a few exceptions, we only saw the Footes at funerals and visitations.  And since they all live in the same small town, the visitations tend to be the kind that take place in those old, homey funeral parlors that used to be someone’s house.  None of those sleek, modern funeral homes with the coordinating décor and multiple viewing rooms for multi-funeral gatherings.  No, my family prefers the places with mismatched Victorian-looking chairs and over-stuffed sofas, with candy dishes and discreet tissue boxes on the coffee tables.

“They do such a nice job here,” someone will inevitably say.  “Remember Mom’s funeral?  What about so-and-so’s?”

When we go to the visitation for a Foote funeral, we all behave as expected.  We make polite chit-chat with relatives that we only vaguely recognize, move through the line to pay our respects to the deceased, shake hands or exchange hugs when it’s over, and then we head out to the parking lot, where the party begins.

Another saying among the Footes is that we should just plan on holding funeral visitations in the parking lot because that’s where we all end up anyway.  By the time we finally leave, we will have spent twice as long in the parking lot  saying good-bye than we spent inside the funeral home.

We cluster around the cars and talk, but not necessarily about the person we’ve gathered to mourn.  We play catch-up on those of us who are left.  “I’m Dean’s daughter,” I’ll say.  “I’m Lee’s son,” someone else offers.  Which segues into a discussion of the family tree and just how we are related to each other.  There are stories to be told, phone numbers and email addresses to be exchanged, promises to be made about staying in touch.

Promises that we know will not be kept.

We aren’t a close family.  My father’s generation was close; they all grew up with their cousins and aunts and uncles living near each other.  But by the time my sisters and I came along, it had already begun to fall apart to the point where we only saw the relatives at funerals, visitations, and the occasional holiday or family picnic.

When the older generation began to pass away, there was a Domino effect.  While we might have gone a year or two between funerals before that, it seemed to pick up pace as soon as we lost the first one.    And always, after each one, there was the gathering in the parking lot to reacquaint ourselves with each other.

I don’t miss most of the Footes, because I really didn’t know them.  But I miss that sense of belonging, of being a part of something.  A member of a family.  I miss the after-visitation conversations out in the funeral parlor parking lot, where I was more than just Amy; I was Dean’s daughter and Ethel’s granddaughter.  Esther’s great-niece.  Tony and Jenny’s cousin.    I looked like the people around me, and felt like the “Bee Girl” in the old Blind Melon video.

As strange as it may sound, I’m looking forward to the next Foote passing, just so I can have a chance to catch up one more time, standing around the parking lot with relatives I no longer know.

And when I die, I want my visitation held at one of those big, old-fashioned funeral parlors that used to be someone’s house.  I want Blind Melon’s “No Rain” playing in the background, and I want to make sure there is a great big parking lot, where my friends and relatives can stand around and swap stories and phone numbers to make sure that the good-byes always last longer than the visits.

 

http://wordpress.com/read/post/id/489937/70892/

Seashells and Pinwheels

Describe your first memorable experience exploring and spending time in nature. Were you in awe? Or were you not impressed? Would you rather spend time in the forest or the city?

For me, “nature” doesn’t mean forest or city; it means water. 

My aunts bought The Seashell — as they named their beach house– when I was three years old, but family legend has it that they took my sisters and me to Lake Michigan on vacation even before that.  Aunt Marian used to tell stories about having to drag me, kicking and screaming, out of the water long after everyone else had tired of swimming.

The Lake was a big playground for us.  My aunts tried to teach us to respect it without fearing it, but I didn’t understand what they meant until the first time I went in the water when the Yellow Flag was up.

There were lifeguards on our beach back then, and they used a flag system to tell us how to treat the water every day.  Green Flag meant the water was calm and smooth and safe, Yellow Flag meant there was a certain degree of danger due to strong currents and high waves, and a Red Flag meant no swimming. Stay out.

I was probably about six or seven years old.  There were four aunts and three little girls, so we always had the full attention of at least one adult.  At all times.  In or out of the water.  We had reached the age where the aunts let us go in the water without them, as long as they were watching from the shore, and as long as the flag was green.  As the youngest, I still had to hold an adult’s hand in the water on Yellow Flag days.

On this particular Yellow Flag day, the aunts decided that I was ready to go in with  just my sisters. 

We were all just learning to bodysurf at that time, but hadn’t quite mastered the art of “reading” the water.  We would wait for the biggest wave, fling ourselves facedown into it with arms stretched out above our heads, and ride the current as far toward shore as possible.

We thought the biggest waves were the strongest.  Now I understand that a stong wave can be any size, but a wave that is muddy brown on top is a wave that is strong enough to gouge into the lake bottom and bring sand to the surface.  In other words, strong enough to knock you on your ass.

Which is exactly what happened.  Sort of.

The wave hit so hard that it drove my face into the bottom of the lake.  My legs went up and over like a crazy little-girl-pinwheel.  I came up for air and gulped down a faceful of the next wave as it crashed into me.  Then I went down again, scraping skin off my shoulder as I bounced along the lake bottom once more.

One of my sisters–I don’t remember which one–hauled me up by my hair and snapped, “Don’t cry or they’ll make us all get out!”

Cry?

I didn’t have time to cry.  I had to catch the next wave.  And the next. 

There is nothing in my life that has ever matched the feeling of being pounded and tossed about by Lake Michigan in her frenzy.  Helpless, disoriented, exhausted, waterlogged and almost afraid.  And starved.  I remember coming out of the water feeling like I could gnaw on some of my own extremities.

And I felt clean.  Inside and out.  Purged of all negativity.  I was recharged, body and soul.

When I battled the waves, I touched God.  And He touched me. 

I’ll never bodysurf again because it’s just too risky with my neck injury.  But I will always need to return to Lake Michigan when my spirit is aching or my soul is weak.  And when the lake is in a frenzy of crashing waves and flying spray, I can almost hear Him speaking to me, telling me to lean on Him.

And then I go home, strong enough to face the world again.

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/06/30/daily-prompt-nature/

Good Advice

My Aunt Marian was full of advice.  “Move the car slow and the wheel fast,” she would say while teaching my sisters and me to drive.  “He may not always be right, but he’s always your boss” or “Don’t ever close the door behind you” were her words of wisdom when we complained about a job.  My favorite was the one she dished out when one of us whined about something we didn’t have in life: “Wish in one hand, shit in the other and see which one gets filled first.”

As my kids get older, I find myself becoming Aunt Marian.  I spout ridiculous words of wisdom at the drop of a hat.  “Take the high road,” I tell my daughter when she argues with a friend.  “What goes around, comes around,” I advise my son when he is bullied on the bus.  “Rain before seven, sun before eleven,” I remind my husband when the Big Guy wonders about the weather.

They listen to me about as well as my sisters and I listened to Marian.  The kids roll their eyes and move on, but The Big Guy likes to rebut with folksy sayings of his own.  “Your mouth runs like a whippoorwill’s ass,” he’ll tell me.

In recent years, I have had to learn to swallow my own advice.  Let me be perfectly honest:  It tastes awful.  It sucks.  I don’t want to “take the high road” or “give them enough rope to hang themselves” or even “be the bigger person”.  I want to go toe-to-toe with some of the people in my life and scream right back at them.  I want to create drama and revel in the bad feelings while self-righteously blaming my opponent.  I want to “give as good as I get.”

But where would it get me?

Could I get back jobs that were lost because of lies?  Would any amount of ranting restore the sense of community where I live, the feeling of family that was lost when my group of friends was torn apart by our local scandal?  The answer, of course, is no.

Would any amount of arguing in my own defense ever restore my relationship with the person whose approval once meant more to me than anything?

The worst part of growing up has been listening to my own advice on that one:  “Take the high road.”  That has meant walking away.  Saying good-bye to a relationship that never really was, accepting that I will never reach the standards set by a person who can never, ever love me as I am.  Understanding that quitting isn’t failure on my part, and that walking away isn’t the same thing as holding a grudge.

Realizing that I can love a person enough to let her go without a fight.

There were times in life when even Aunt Marian ran out of advice, and all she could do was hold us and let us cry.  She would pat a back or smooth tangled hair away from a tear-streaked face, and she’d murmur, “This too shall pass, Honey.  This too shall pass.  Just hang on.”

Thanks for the advice, Marian.  There are days when I’m hanging on by my fingertips, but I’m hanging on.