I’ve had many Thanksgivings in my lifetime – 64 to be exact. Some Thanksgivings were solemn while some were in need of police intervention. This Thanksgiving, I vow to not argue, fight, or suffer even the slightest guilt over the kind of turkey that will be consumed by my family. I won’t.
From my working-class childhood to my middle-class life in the hinterlands of western New York, I’ve learned that a turkey, any turkey, even just the smell of a roasting turkey is a must. I’ve come to this conclusion via my mom who would, surveying her kitchen early Thursday morning, pronounce the beginning of the holiday by saying, “Let’s get this place smelling like Thanksgiving.” And so she would.
We live in interesting times when it comes to the food we put on our plates. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows shot from the self-righteous and well heeled. And I’ve walked through a Whole Foods store. So I think I understand the vaygeshray that surrounds the argument between the factory-farmed turkeys and those birds who’ve been raised in the weedless fields of the free-range mind. Suffering. It’s all about suffering.
The Thanksgivings of my childhood were only fraught with decisions around frozen vs. non-frozen and the turkey’s weight – questions easily answered by my parent’s current budget. Today, one can run from pillar to post in attempts to be politically correct and can, after taking out a second mortgage on one’s home, get the totally natural turkey; one that slept on down comforters and was fed on manna dropped from the hands various gods of free-range practices. And so, for more than a few years, my husband and I opted for the expensive, middle-class-guilt reducing bird that needed the strength and precision of Seal-team 6 to cut through. But hey, the bird didn’t suffer. It could hardly have suffered as much as we did – chewing, chewing, and chewing on what seemed like the dusty, original, leather-bound edition of Moby Dick!
So, this Thursday I vow (in honor of my late mom) to get up early and get my house “…smelling like Thanksgiving.” I will give thanks for the many blessings that have been bestowed upon me and mine. Also, I will acknowledge the original (yet unspoken) theft this holiday commemorates with an apology for the suffering of native Americans – a suffering that gets lost in the concern for an ugly bird that we will slice and dice with impunity. And after all of this, I will gladly testify before the senate committee on turkey injustice. I will raise my right hand, and swear to tell the truth before all the gods of political correctness that, yes, I bought a commercial, salt injected bird at 89¢ a pound. A bird that probably gobbled horribly as it was being killed; a bird that may have had siblings that hated him or her for a fat-breasted success; a bird that had no idea what a future was or that there was a senate committee committed to his or her happiness. Yes, I ate such a bird and I found it – GOOD.
Theirs are the young faces brightened
By the garish blue-light of their toys
They look up to cast wary, beleaguered eyes at us
“What do we know?”
We have left the living rooms to them for their disposal
Seated on comfortable sofas and chairs – our gifts for their retreat
We huddle in kitchens preparing healthy meals
For children who are no longer
And will have nothing to eat
As they rewrite their lives in 140 characters or less
Living on likes and bytes
No thought given to the time-capsule in the attic
The one that holds the baby clothes and tangible
Photographs of all their ‘firsts.’
And the trunk jammed packed with sheet
Music for instruments
They’ve forgotten how to play
Maybe they’ll want to explore one day
Like they used to
Sneak into the attic and see the Polaroids –
The young, beautiful couple beaming at their baby
“Who are they?”
They are the originators of your story
The authors who’ve shared the same pen
Picking up when one partner drifts off
Crawling away to heal the cuts
To hearts now cowering in kitchens
Licking the sweet spoons of memory
There is a country rich in diamonds,
Oil and foreign sports cars
I know this – having read it in
This is a country in which one child
In six will die before the age of five
Says The Times’ Kristof
But I live in a country that cares
About children – Some of us
Care so much we call authorities
On parents whose children walk
Home from the park – alone
Keeping our children absurdly safe
Ignoring the Angolan mother holding
The “twig limbs,” swollen belly, wizened face
Of the near carcass that is her child
She’s waiting for care from the few who do
Those people who come from far off places to nurse and
Heal everyone’s children
Those people who know that diamonds
Are friend to no one
The people who recognize
The diamond’s sparkle
Being stolen everyday
From the eyes of babies
Leaving in its place a
Haunted spectacle, skeletal frame
Held together in wrinkled brown
Wrappings of skin
Yesterday my husband put the app *Shazam on my cell phone
(*A method of identifying music simply by holding the phone
Up to a speaker to catch the song’s lyrics)
I left the room defeated and purposeless
Something else for which my brain does not have to work
There are days taken up in battle with forgetfulness
Days that end in celebration of memory’s grace
Now, what will I do
To replace that struggle
With a memory reticent
Holding on to those
To let go
In the upwelling of silence
In rooms wallpapered with lyrics that sing
The long fable of my youth
Seats (the best) on the top deck
Draped with posh hotel
Towels – pulling double duty saving and drying the seat for
The entitled; the family of five with a guest
Middle age couple #1 she holding desperately his hand
He looking like he stole time
Deciding on the white island linen shirt
The #2 she, face a beautiful forlorn ruin looking
Into the shoulder she married.
A shoulder that is turned away from her
As her husband talks across his son’s girlfriend (who feigns sleep)
Important (?) to his namesake
The young pale and married couple next to us Russian (?)
He sits away from the rays reading a thick paperback
She sits yoga in the sun
Two lovers at the rail; beautiful
Unnoticing of the lame (who are now walking)
And the blind (who are now seeing)
When he of receding hairline & confidence
grabs at her hips
She shimmy’s away
Ignorant of the finite attracting powers of good skin
She stands away a bit – the coy mistress, eyeing him
As the lusty gulf wind whips at her hem
Revealing everyone’s wish
Through what strange porthole do we
Drag our outsized dreams
All the while cursing its size
And not the size of our schemes
What is right and what is wrong
Unruled by the heart
Vaguely menacing headlines
Parading news as art
There is order in the forests
Though no king or queen abides
We fear dark hard silence
And the mute in life’s asides
Outside margins there exists
The right for us to grow
To a fullness that disturbs the gist
The city’s turbid ebb and flow
Pare not your life to other’s whim
Live the largeness of your dream
Ignore the porthole its jagged rim
That rips and disesteems
For me, I shall look for clues
Sometimes a lost endeavor
To a freeway sign – not a ruse
“The worst ancestors ever.”
“Go home,” the mighty Christians say
from their soapbox of indignities
our taxes too high we need to slay
those who’d deny our vanities
hatred in torrents
Maybe it’s the distance
from Emma’s creed
begetting an entranced
and ugly breed
“Your tired, your hungry” sentenced to crawl
back to Central America; “Mexico”
while goodness & ignorance resort to brawl
to kindergarten a few will go
They will go to your schools
learn your lessons well
they’ll know all enemy’s rules
that armies were sent to quell
And lo many, many years hence
you’ll stare from old window blind
having forgotten hate’s energy spent
begging beautiful leaders, “please be kind”
The New York Times’
Armies of children
Armed only with dreams
What does a cup of coffee, a wicked sense of humor, and a loving and determined mother have in common? All three of the above elements served as foundation for all that my mom was – and remains in my memory. Coffee for my mother Ruth Christina Norman was the elixir of choice. I learned at an early age how to make coffee and every morning before I left for school I treated her to a cup before she got out of bed. She would sip a bit before getting up and getting ready for work then gulp the rest before grabbing her keys and heading downtown to work. This became our ritual after she and dad divorced in 1968. Gatherings around coffee brought forth so many memorable and hilarious expressions from a woman who was taken out of school after the 5th grade to help care for brothers and sisters who would later disown her. They showed this by failing to inform her of her mother’s death by almost a month. So afraid were they that my mother would show up with the darker members of her family. My mother carried around this well-hidden pain for 77 years. So many years to shrink into resentment and bitterness. But not my mother – not as long as there was coffee and people to enjoy.
My mother was so very proud of her six children. This was a pride that took root in her relentless devotion to her responsibilities as a parent. My mother married my stepfather in 1954 when I was three-years-old. It was my father’s discharge from the Air Force that year that caused our move to his hometown of Los Angeles, California. I say this to point out the fierceness of my mother’s spirit when confronted with the amazement of my father’s friends and family when he returned to L.A. with five children. It was this fierceness that drove my mother to her ultimate concern with appearance. You see, no one was going to say Ruthie came to America with all these raggedy babies. If my sisters, brother and I had a closet in which hung all the memories of growing under mom’s care I believe that first memory would be of cleaned and starched school clothes. Also, in that closet would hang the communion dresses, the shirts, and the wedding dresses that she made in those late-night hours after a full day’s work.
My mother was a wonderful cook. Her meals were hearty and unforgettable but few people knew that, in Canada, after the death of her first husband my mother took a job as a camp cook. She told me this story not long before she died and I am awestruck by the image of a 22 year old widow, tucking her three babies in the canoe before putting the kettle of food for the campers and paddling across the river behind her rural house to the camp on the other side. The stories of my mother’s miracle surrounding SPAM are legendary, as my college roommate will tell you. There was the proposed (in jest) cookbook 101 Ways to Cook Chicken & Potatoes Without Really Trying with my mom as author. Needless to say my mother was the queen of survival. There were evenings when our cupboards were seemingly bare and yet by the time we washed up for dinner, the table was set and we ate – and ate well. I remember hearing the “loaves and fishes” story in catechism and walking home convinced God was a woman – had to be – because my mom did that “loaves and fishes” thing – a lot. My mother knew the value of time and she filled hers with family, friends and work.
My siblings and I can tell you that the biggest sin in our house was looking un-busy. Looking back on mom’s indomitable will and spirit you can understand why. When I was in elementary school she would go to work at Terry Tuck sewing pockets on terry cloth robes earning three cents a pocket. She would then come home cook for six children and a husband before going to her second job sewing the cording on decorative pillows while my dad went to night school. My mother’s life was filled with hard work and I wonder now if she ever resented her mother taking her out of school to help care for her siblings?
My mother was not without her own creative gifts. Gifts that became visible when I went away to college and found my mailbox some days filled with poems written by her. I remember studying her usage and structure and knowing any gifts I may have demonstrated certainly had their foundation within this woman of modest dreams and wild desires. In spite of my mother’s lack of formal education she was the best teacher a child could have. She taught by example earning her PhD in the school of life.
My mother withstood the blows to her heart when her oldest daughter died of breast cancer and then, three years later, when her youngest succumbed to malaria. Such tragedy of monumental structure. My mother survived the inside out, upside down world takes over when a woman’s child dies before her. She refused to crumble rather, when we returned from the last wake my mother put on a pot of coffee, gathered her remaining family around her and carried on. In 1999 my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and even then I knew that this disease was not going to take my mother out – not this woman. In fact two years into her “dance” with multiple myeloma she called me from a Los Angeles hospital in tears – a new doctor told her to get her affairs in order. She was shaken and so was I as I listened to my tower of strength telling me I could have her Kaufman’s card (this was serious!). I called my mom the next morning. She picked up the phone just as she was telling the young doctor what she thought about his suggestion of the evening before. She told him never to darken her doorstep and stay away from her if he had no good news because she was going when she was ready and not a minute before. She was right.
And in the run-up to her ‘time’ my mother prepared us. I remember her taking my face between her hands forcing me to listen to her burial plans that ended with the option of burying her face down and all those who had nothing good to say about her could just “kiss my ass.” If we decided to cremate (which was her choice) then we could sprinkle her ashes over a J.C. Penney store for all the time and money she spent there.
My mom died on July 7th 2004 as I was making a connecting flight to L.A. True to form my mother was organized right to the very end. My sister and I were not surprised to find everything in order with all the important paperwork that accrues when a life is ending. My mother’s handwritten reminder list contained the name of the mortuary, the names of the contact people at the mortuary, what to do with her remains, and the numbers and codes relating to the small insurance policies she had. After each item on this list my mother put her signature smiley face ☺. Her last request on this list was not to forget her ashes. Here is where the smile was turned down ☹. My sister and I cried – not for my mother but for all of us. My mother was ready to die.
Sadly, we were not ready to see her go.
In 1998 I was “stuck” with western New York’s equivalent of “The Bad News Bears.” A team no one wanted and I, by default (with a son moving up to majors with his father as coach), was left to coach. I can teach life-saving & water safety classes but baseball? All I could picture was me ducking and flailing comically out of the way of a come-backer that was sure to find my front teeth. If only that were the singular tragedy that season. The following essay won the 1999 New York State Teachers 1st prize for journalism and a lovely (unaccepted) job offer. I repost today after going into town and having lunch by the river treated to sights of youth on the water and the haunting sounds of balls being cracked into the outfield behind me. Happy spring.
It would be wonderful to say “Stevie” came to baseball tryouts that first day and dazzled everyone. He didn’t. Stevie showed little talent for the game. Even when he came to that first practice, when it was so cold he had to alternate throwing drills with time in the heated cab of the truck, he knew he had a ways to go to be as good as some of last year’s minor-leaguers. I didn’t see him for three practices and one game after that. I had forgotten what he looked like.
On the day of our second game this very blond, fragile boy walked into the dugout. I responded with my customary “Excuse me,” which was freighted with suspicious overtones. He slowly turned and spoke his name. Then I was glad to see him, because that only made us shy one player. Even so, I knew we had to borrow a player from our opponent’s bench and I silently kissed the thought of winning good-bye as I saw the little, very little fellow stumbling our way from the other dugout. I looked back at my bench and eagerness engulfed the boys and protected them from the slow rain beginning to fall.
Stevie took his place in the outfield. He was safe. Balls seldom get out that far in the minors. His hitting was lackluster, too, but I did make a mental note to get to the pitching machine first and get in the much needed batting practice for everyone. At batting practice he swung too late, too weak. I began to feel that he was in little league for other reasons. His body was there; arms, legs, and head, but not his heart – that was somewhere else.
Our next game was across town. Stevie was there. He quietly took center field. I remember my frustration as a shallow fly-ball caused him and the other 9-year-olds to stare at such a phenomenon in awe. The next inning Stevie was taking a bathroom break when we started closing the gap despite our weak fielding. It was the fourth inning and Stevie’s turn at bat – no Stevie. I made a mental joke about his bathroom break being a complete stop. After making a substitution, I went to investigate.
I headed around the dugout just in time to meet his mom and dad who were already on their way back with a very shaken little boy. He had been locked in the portable john that sits on the other side of the playground. Turning the ring-shaped latch to the locked position is a common prank, I was told when I complained. I came back to the dugout to see Stevie huddled in the corner shivering in spite of the 75 degree weather. I told him he could get back into the game after this inning, and he looked at me with tears brimming in his large blue eyes and asked if he could sit out the rest of the game. He was different; unlike the others who would probably have shrugged off the incident and jumped at the chance to play. Not Stevie.
I wish I could say I remember what he said when, later, he came out to tell me about something in his life. I remember him standing there happy to have his mom’s sweatshirt on and flapping the over-sized sleeves. I do remember that was the only time I saw him smile.
The last time I saw Stevie was team picture day. I see him clearly, now, next to his mom with his head in her lap as the other Yankees run amok. I see myself, too, cranky as ever, trying to get eleven 9- and 10-year-olds to hold together in line at 6 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The remainder of that week is a blur. Just bits and pieces stay afloat; obtuse, emotional flotsam.
The phone call came Friday night from a friend with news of the terrible accident involving a 9-year-old in my valley and concern that my son be affected by the news. I heard the name, last name only, so many out there it can’t be THE one. I remember my call to the hospital, and the surprise of the emergency room nurse and her emphatic “No!” when I asked if anyone of that name had come in this afternoon. I waited, hoping against hope and losing track of time. I made a promise to myself to hug Stevie the next day at our game. I went to bed thinking of how I was going to explain the hug and special attention. At 11:30 that night the call came. I wouldn’t have to explain. Stevie was dead … killed when a tractor-mounted mower backed over him. I thought of his fragile body. My dreams that short night ended with the sight of Stevie huddled in the corner of the dugout, shivering from the pain and fear of the dark. I cried most of the day – for Stevie, his mom and dad, his brother, for me and every time I made a call to tell the other team parents of our canceled game and the reason.
I met with my team the following Monday. With Tuesday being a game day, I could not go on with life as usual until there was some acknowledgment with the team of Stevie’s tragedy. A counselor, friend and colleague offered to come and speak to the team and possibly help them with grief. I should be used to this grief. But I am not. So, I could only hope that my friend could do for my team what she did for me that Saturday when I called desperately needing comfort and help.
My team was there, and as we sought the cool shade around the practice field, I knew things would be OK. The tentative smiles of the kids and the smiles strained with sadness of the moms and dads spoke of the need to “DO” and the tools with which to accomplish this task. My friend was wonderful, beautiful in her approach. She came with handouts: “How Tos: for parents who deal with children and tragedy.” Grateful, parents snapped up the papers as they listened to their young suggest ideas for a personal memorial to their teammate. Adult tears were ever-brimming as it became apparent these young people were taking that important first step in grief management. They had been given a platform from which to address their sorrow. Plans were set; the stage would be taken, exits would be made and, however sadly, life would move on.
Stevie’s funeral was 11 o’clock that Tuesday morning. Tuesday evening found the ballpark full of parents and players alike, hearts heavy with the knowledge of why the flag was at half-staff. The ceremony began. The stadium announcer proclaimed the game dedicated to the memory of Stevie and invited all the little leaguers in the park to come to the ballfield. A hat and jersey with Stevie’s number was placed at home plate. Someone on the team said “… Stevie’s home now.” The pledge was spoken as two team members unfolded a banner reading “Angels like you are precious and few.” A brand new bat engraved with Stevie’s number was presented to the team. And finally, the messages taped to helium balloons held in the right hand of each team member were released on the count of “1, 2, 3 STEVIE.” A song was playing: “… if I am not there in the morning … remember me …” My team’s faces were shiny with tears, yet held high and smiling at the sight of a dozen Yankee-blue balloons moving further and further into the stratosphere. I looked at my son, and the sons and daughters of others and I beheld a beauty indescribable.
Oh, if life could imitate art we would have seen, that radiant Tuesday evening, Stevie, receiving his wings in some heavenly arena flooded with light. Even as we left a hole in our lineup indicating no player (visible) in center field, we should have known we would win. Fly-balls – shallow or deep, it didn’t matter – hung in the air, giving my team all the “awe-time” they needed before, yes, God willing, Stevie caught the ball.