Sunday Dinner #3

I’m on a roll!

This week I was excited to cook for my son, his fiancé, and his fiancé’s parents. I made one of Paul’s classics; Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and green beans, Caesar salad, yeast roll, and a chocolate pound cake.

Let’s start with dessert!

The pound cake is legendary in the southern United States. My grandmother’s pound cake is one of my earliest holiday memories as much for the fuss that my family made when they ate it as for the taste. Interestingly, I also vividly remember both the smell and the texture. My grandmother’s recipe was the traditional pound cake flavored with almond or vanilla extract, and the interior was dense and moist while the outside was bumpy and just ever so slightly crisp and crusty on the top. She always served it warm. Honestly, there is nothing else quite like it.

Paul’s family favors a chocolate pound cake so that’s what I made for the newest members of our family. This pound cake calls for 1 cup of butter, one-half cup of vegetable shortening, 3 cups of sugar, 3 cups of all-purpose flour, one-half teaspoon of baking powder, one-half cup of cocoa powder, one-half teaspoon of salt, 5 eggs, 1 cup of milk, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla.

First, sift the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, cocoa, and salt) and set aside. Next, cream the butter, vegetable shortening, and sugar in an electric mixer. Add the eggs one at a time; blending well after each addition. Then, add the dry mixture and the milk alternating, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Finally, stir in the vanilla.

Pour into a greased 10-inch tube pan and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. Give it the ol’ jiggle test and test for done-ness by inserting a toothpick. The toothpick should emerge clean or very nearly clean. I say very nearly clean because it is my firm belief that the best pound cakes all have a soft spot; not wet, not gooey, but soft like very thick, slice-able pudding. My oven runs a little hot, and I was using a pan with a dark coating. So, I tested the cake at 50 minutes and decided to let it stay in another five minutes. That’s five minutes short of the recommended baking time.

The first time I made a pound cake I was heavily pregnant with our son. I must have been feeling the affects of hormones and being so near my due date because I was doing a lot of nesting. Paul was at work, and at some point during the day, I decided I would just up and make a pound cake, something I had never done before, to surprise him with when he came home. Well, let’s just say he was certainly surprised. I did manage to bake a decent pound cake considering it was my first attempt, but the effort was mighty. That cake whooped my butt! I was exhausted, exasperated, and must have been a sight to behold as I was peppered with flour and swipes of chocolate batter from nearly head to toe. I also remember how proud my husband was of me, how delighted he was as he sliced and ate that cake saying, “This is amazing. You did so good, baby!”

On this day, twenty-four years later, I was so happily(!) wrapped up in my memories of that first chocolate pound cake that I forgot to take pictures of each step in the process. I had put the cake in the oven and was licking the spoon before I realized I had not made enough pictures!

***

The main course was Greek chicken with roasted potatoes and fresh green beans. I used six large bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts with rib meat. Begin with a generous pour of olive oil in the bottom of a deep baking dish. Arrange the chicken pieces.

Again, following Paul’s technique, I made a little pocket between the skin and the flesh of each piece of chicken. Into the little pockets, I stuffed a couple of pads of butter. This keeps the chicken super moist and tender. Then, pour some more olive oil over the pieces and sprinkle heavily with an all-purpose Greek seasoning. Turn the pieces over and repeat the seasoning. Turn the pieces back over and season once again making sure that each piece of chicken is well coated with the seasoning. Squeeze fresh lemon juice over the chicken. Cut the lemon into quarters and place in the baking dish with the chicken.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees for approximately one and one-half hours. Finally, uncover and place back in the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes to crisp up the skin of the chicken. Also, I always use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken has reached an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees. Typically, this is my signal that the chicken is ready to be uncovered for crisping the skin.

***

Roasted potatoes with fresh green beans accompanied the chicken. I use small white/yellow and red-skinned potatoes. The larger ones I slice in half and the smallest ones I just leave whole. Toss with olive oil, Greek seasoning, and green beans and squeeze in more fresh lemon juice. Slice the squeezed lemon and toss in as well. Bake for about 30 minutes, less if the dish or pan is shallow and you have more room to spread the potatoes out.

I made a simple Caesar salad and yeast rolls to round out the meal.

***

I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy cooking. It has led to both moments and whole swaths of time filled with joy, laughter, some tears, memories, and pure gratitude.

It’s really amazing. I think of Paul; all those years, all those meals. None of us had any idea how meaningful and precious they would one day be. Paul’s love of cooking for his family has become part of the legacy of love he left to us.

I’m going to leave off with the blessing we say at every meal. It just seems so fitting.

Lord, make us truly thankful for these and all our many blessings, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others. In Christ’s name, Amen

Malia

Sunday Dinner #2

I’m getting good at this!

For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.

This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.

***

The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.

In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.

***

Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)

Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.

The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.

Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!

But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows:  steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!

The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.

Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.

***

Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.

***

Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.

However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.

***

And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).

First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.

Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.

As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!

This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.

Food + memories = joy, Malia

Sunday Dinner #1

Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!

My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.

First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.

Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.

Finally, it’s therapeutic. Cooking has benefits all its own, the ability to heal a broken heart. A New York Times article from many years back, “Cooking is therapy:  Making meals helps reduce stress, heal a broken heart, among other benefits”, aptly describes the many benefits of spending time in the kitchen.

Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.

For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.

***

First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.

Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.

I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.

***

This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.

For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.

Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.

For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.

Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.

***

In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.

My friends, healing is the new grieving, Malia

The cookie post…as promised!

I’m ready to start cooking again. This is a huge step for me. I have to confess, however, that again is a stretch because Paul was always the cook in our household; great big breakfasts, warm soups and stews, casseroles, meat and three, salads, and rich desserts. Since Paul passed away, I have had little interest in food let alone cooking. I have resisted, outright refused to cook anything, because, well, that’s not my job. No, I’m not doing that. That’s Paul’s job. It’s not my place. That’s what he loves to do; arms crossed, pouty face, forehead furrowed making the shape of the number 11 right between my eyebrows and a stomp of the foot for good measure.

When Paul and I met, all I could do in the kitchen was scramble some eggs and wash dishes. As a child, I was a picky eater. My family still gives me a hard time and tells stories of my epic, picky eating escapades. They love to tell the story of how my grandmother would prepare these enormous Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, and my mother would sneak off to the kitchen and make me a cheese sandwich because that, literally, was all I would eat.

Paul was a wonderful cook and encouraged me to try all kinds of foods. In general, I really appreciate food and enjoy trying a wide variety of cuisines. Paul made trying new things an adventure. He made it fun! He introduced me to foods from cultures around the world, something he developed an interest in when his family lived in Japan during the 1960s. We loved to try new and different restaurants, some fancy but most them not. We were always delighted to find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in some back water town serving up unique and delicious dishes. Meals were more than just sustenance. They were a heartfelt, shared experience full of stories, smiles, laughter, sometimes arguing, and good old fashioned conversation about the world and our place in it.

I do believe Paul got his love of and knack for cooking from his mother. She is also an excellent cook. Some of the most warm, joyful memories in the life of our family are set at Paul’s parents’ kitchen table. Love was passed around the table alongside piping hot bowls of home cooking; everything made-from-scratch as they say. Many of the dishes that Paul made for us he learned from his mother, and some of them his mother learned from her mother. His mother’s family were upcountry, subsistence farmers descended from early, English and Scottish settlers to the Carolinas. They either raised or grew everything they ate, mostly chicken and pork, beans, and summer vegetables like corn, peas, squash, butter beans, and tomatoes. This is where Paul picked up his love of gardening, too. He was a green thumb to be sure, and we enjoyed home grown vegetables from Daddy’s garden for many years.

I am sure to many of y’all cooking is just a normal part of everyday life. It might even be a chore, but for me, cooking again for my family and myself is a growth goal, a milestone in my grief and healing process. It’s also a way to memorialize my husband both for myself and future generations. There are just certain meals and dishes made in our family that will forever remind us of Daddy’s cooking. My son was really pleased when I told him I was ready to start cooking, even more so when I told him I was going to cook Daddy’s entire catalog, all the best loved meals he made for us throughout the years and that I would document it with photos and recipes. He said, “Oh, Mom. It’s a time capsule.” Yes, sweetheart, it is.

I keep promising cookies so here we go…I figured I would start this cooking adventure with Paul’s signature cookies. He made these every year during the holidays, a dark chocolate twist on the traditional chocolate chip cookie. They are rich, delicious, and different. Disclaimer here:  I’m not sure where Paul found this recipe. It was not his recipe and is not mine. We just always called them…

Those dark chocolate cookies that Daddy makes.

1 bag 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate chips (Paul liked the Ghirardelli brand best!)
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts

Melt the bittersweet chocolate chips and butter together in a double boiler.

I don’t own a double boiler so I improvised (a pot inside another pot that was filled with water), and it worked just fine.

Beat eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until thick and stir in the chocolate mixture.

Combine the flour and baking powder and stir into the chocolate mixture. Finally, gently stir in the semi-sweet chips and walnuts.

Cover the mixture and place in the freezer for at least an hour.

Set oven to 375 F. Use a greased cookie sheet or line with parchment paper or foil. Bake 12-14 minutes or until a shiny crust forms on top.

***

Speaking of kitchens. I was in the kitchen with some friends of mine recently, a couple who have been married for a long time. They a both wonderful people and even more wonderful together. As conversations go sometimes, there was disagreement between them which became a little argument, maybe not even an argument, just bickering really. As they were going back and forth across the topic, I faded to the background and just watched, marveled really, and listened and smiled and wondered a) how many times Paul and I bickered like that, b) what a privilege it is, and c) that I would give anything to have an argument with Paul even over something trivial.

It’s interesting. I didn’t have a Pollyanna attitude about it. I didn’t feel the impulse to provide the staid, old chestnut, advice on the subject. I didn’t feel compelled to tell them to stop arguing, stop taking each other for granted or admonish them with ‘Does it really matter? It’s a petty argument’ and ‘Let it go!’ No, what I wanted to tell them was to enjoy it. Enjoy every aspect of the other person and the relationship. Disagreeing with someone you love is a privilege and a gift. Sharing yourself, your whole self, your thoughts, feelings, and opinions especially when they are not in congruence with your partner is a privilege and to be highly esteemed. What I really wanted to say was, “Well done. Carry on. Argue it out, and love each other well before, during, and after.”

Share everything, especially with those you love, Malia

All aboard! The holiday struggle-bus is pulling into the station, and I’ve got a ticket to ride…

…also making stops at Nostalgia Boulevard, Lonely Street, and my personal favorite (hmph!), Anxiety Avenue.

Hold on to your hats. This one is going to be a humdinger. My fellow bloggers, grief-specific and otherwise, are all weighing in on the holidays so I’ll dive in, too. Dive into the holiday deep end that is.

I have a distinct memory of the summer I dove off the diving board at the pool for the first time. I was ten. Now, certainly I had been jumping off the diving board for quite some time, feet first, but diving in head first was a different story. I was terrified of going in head first. I had so, so many failed attempts that it was becoming a spectator sport for my fellow swimmers and sunbathers, children and adults alike. There she goes. Will she do it this time? Oh, I think she will! There I was poised at the end of the board, all ten toes wrapped around the edge, in position, knees bent, arms overhead, hands crossed just so in order to break the surface of the water to protect my head from the force of the impact. This is it! I think she’s really going to do it. Some of them would even call out to me. You can do it! Go ahead. That’s right! You’ve got it this time! I would lean forward, begin to feel the pull of gravity, past the point of no return, and then change my mind at the last second; half stepping off, half jumping, half falling, arms wind-milling, eyes closed, face pinched tight. Then, one day when I was poised once again to take the plunge head first, someone suggested that I didn’t have to use force. I could simply allow myself to fall forward into the water. That suggestion changed everything. I got into position. My friends, neighbors, and swim team comrades must have sensed something was different this time because they began to gather around the edge of the pool at the deep end to cheer me on. And.I.did.it. I allowed myself to simply fall forward, head first, into the water. Also known as a dive. As I was making my way back up to the surface, even from within the cocoon of the water surrounding me, I could hear the muted, muffled sounds of everyone cheering.

So here goes.

Nostalgia (Boulevard) is more than just memories. There is a different quality to it, a sadness that borders on melancholy. It is sweeping and broad, equatorial, and leaves me listless like a sailboat held hostage in the Atlantic doldrums, at their mercy until another fickle wind arrives. Nostalgia leaves me impossibly longing for that which I have had and enjoyed but can never have again. And I am lonely. The phone calls and check-ins have tapered off as everyone said they would, and I understand and it’s okay, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. Then, there’s the mistress of ceremonies, anxiety. Let’s take a peek into her knack for choreographing my day….

I wake and go about my business getting ready for work, but my mind is already beginning to worry and spin. I’m finishing up in the shower…. Turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water. Nope. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off! I manage eventually to move on, get dressed, and make it to the kitchen, but I’m stuck. Move, move. It’s time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Me, still not moving. My feet will not advance. Sharp breath. Time to go! I make it to the back door. Open the door, open the door, turn the knob, Malia, turn the knob!

I share this because I want others to know what anxiety can feel like and what it can do, how it affects a person AND how well some people (yes, I am referring to myself) can hide it. I also share it so that others who have had similar experiences, and I know you are out there, know that you are not alone.

I know and fully understand that most of this is the holiday affect. I am grateful that I don’t live with this all the time. I have the reassurance of experience that tells me it’s temporary, a symptom brought on by grief. As difficult as the holidays are, anniversaries are harder, and folks, I’ve hit the grief jackpot, an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Yay. So, yesterday was, or maybe I should say would have been? Ugh, verb tenses, like pronouns, are now a complete mystery to me. Anyway, it was our anniversary, our wedding anniversary. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, Paul and I married. The memory of it is so quick and sharp that I can recall how the air smelled; woody, damp pine, oak, loamy soil, cedar, and smilax combined with salt-marsh and fallow fields and tea olive. It was a typically warm-ish, Lowcountry December day. The day began with scattered rain showers, but by 2 o’clock, it was sunny and breezy. I remember looking behind me to see my long veil was blowing sideways in the wind as I entered the church.

Yesterday was a weird day for me emotionally. I tend to be a bring-it kind of girl. Last year’s holidays were my first without Paul. Of course, it was going to be difficult. I was expecting it to be difficult. So, I had a plan and hurled myself forward through the holidays like I had the grabbed the ball at the 50 yard line and was making a charge for the end zone. In contrast, this year feels like a football field full of quick sand. I have frequently found myself sucked into the trance of a thousand-yard stare. On this day last year, I was compelled to spend the day at the place where Paul and I first met. This year, I didn’t feel called to do that. It might be a sign of growth and progress, or it might be avoidance. With grief, sometimes these two opposites actually appear the same.

***

Marcus Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston. He is brilliant and kind and a true artist. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to meet him and for my students to work with him. I was reading his poetry recently when I came across a poem he wrote on December 14, 2017, mine and Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary, the last one we celebrated together before he passed away. I don’t know how Marcus did it, but he channeled our relationship perfectly.

(…and you will be beautiful)

There
will
be
a
day
when
I
won’t
need
mirrors
because
looking
into
your
eyes
will
be
the
only
reflection
I’ll
need
to
see
myself.

***

The light of my countenance is a little dimmer these days. I find the weight of my smile has become too heavy. I just can’t hold up the corners of my mouth anymore. They keep falling. When I am alone, I let my entire face fall and the saltwater tears pool up to the brim of my eyes like buckets that are only a single drop from completely spilling over. In my ocean of grief, emotions swell as waves do. They rush toward the shore of my daily life and recede. Also, like the great oceans of the Earth, the surface may appear relatively calm, but there’s so much more happening below; great, swirling gyres of currents strong enough to move water around the entire planet. The emotions below the surface are equally powerful and forceful enough to drive mood and affect.

My mind is jumbled and out of sorts. It feels like this might be a little setback. I am reminded of another poem, the first poem I have a memory of, the first poem that taught me what a poem is, Fog by Carl Sandburg. We learned it in school in perhaps second or third grade. I was taken with it and read it over and over again.

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sandburg could easily be describing grief. Who knows? Maybe he was…..

The sadness comes/on little cat feet.

Or

The fog of grief comes/on little cat feet.

….and if Sandburg was describing grief then there’s good news in the poem, too, in that grief like the fog, moves on.

***

When Paul was in the hospital, we had many pet therapy visits. We were grateful for the distraction, grateful for the opportunity to smile. We missed our own dogs who were back at home. Pet therapy visits made the whole room feel warmer, more relaxed. We cherished those visits and were so thankful. Once I was feeling strong enough, I knew it was something I needed to do for others in return.

Each week, I visit patients throughout the same hospital with my dog, Beatrice. She and Paul had a special bond, the way dogs seem to have a way of attaching themselves to a particular human even within a family. She and I worked hard for months to earn her certification. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, but she truly amazes me with her ability to connect with patients and how much she herself enjoys the work. She’s a very social, gregarious, and energetic(!) dog, but when I put the little vest on her she gets all serious and professional. She’s ready to go to work! Her demeanor changes with each room we go into. She reads the patient and responds accordingly. I have watched her lean in to patients, comforting them with her body weight. She gently creeps up closer to them, nuzzling into their arms and shoulders and sometimes even rests her head under their chin. She sees doctors and nurses and staff in the hallways and immediately drops and rolls over signaling an invitation to rub her belly exposing her softness and her trust. We frequently hear comments like That’s the first time I’ve seen that patient smile since she was admitted and Thank you so much. This made my day and This is exactly what I needed and This is as alert as I have seen that patient in days.

The experience never fails to provide me with perspective. It always clears the junk out of my head and heart, bringing laser sharp perspective. There’s nothing quite like it for practicing presence and gratitude. Time and grief are suspended. There is only the moment. Only the now, and it is such a welcome relief to lay down the burden of grief and share a moment of joy with others in the need of the same.

On my rounds, I often visit the children’s hospital including pediatric oncology. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words, especially not in this post, but it is hard for me to describe what it’s like to visit with a child who is fighting cancer. Their ability to take joy in the moment is inspiration to my soul. Beatrice and I walk in and the children’s faces just light up with smiles. I can’t see their smiles because they are hidden behind the masks they wear to protect what precious little is left of their weakened immune systems, but I know they are smiling because I can see the light shining through their eyes and their cheeks raised into little apples and the edges of the masks as Beatrice greets them with her warmth and her happy, wagging tail. Experiences like this bring focus and clarity about life, what’s really important, and the true nature of beauty. In these experiences, there is no past. There is no thought of the future. Only the present. Only that moment. Not five minutes ago. Not five minutes from now. Only that moment. And, in that moment, there is also eternity in the sense that all concept and awareness of the passage of time is lost. Time both stops and stretches on forever in all directions. When I leave the hospital, I find that my own cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It’s not a cure for grief, but it is a band-aid for sadness. Job 5:18 comes to mind, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”

At the end of this long and emotionally exhausting day, when I was questioning all that had transpired and all that lay ahead, I looked into the sky and….saw a shooting star. I was astonished. It was a rare gift in our section of the night sky. I mean we do have meteor activity it’s just that our coastal skies are often cloudy and this particular evening the moon was quite large and bright. I was also near the city so light pollution should have precluded being able to see any such activity, but there it was.

This has been a lengthy post. Apparently, I had stored up a lot of stuff that needed to be expressed. I realize that I should perhaps post more often!

The next post will be lighter. I promise. In fact, the next post will be about cookies 😉

Until then, Malia

I need to build a bomb shelter.

Sometimes grief is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re never quite sure what grief-bomb may be falling next. Lately, it’s been like a bombardment. Air raid sirens are wailing, and I can hear the sharp, clear, high-pitched, hissing whistle of the bombs as they fall and hit their target leaving craters on my heart, pock marked like the moon.

At my new job, there are many people who are new to me, but some who already know me and some others still who knew both me and Paul. On a recent morning in the cafeteria, I was talking with just such a person, a friend of my husband’s from childhood. In fact, they lived across the street from each other. She told me how she moved from Indiana into the neighborhood and met Paul one day when they were both standing at the end of their driveways. As she was telling me this, she made a motion with her hand as if waving. Suddenly, I had a bird’s eye view of the two of them, standing in their driveways on opposite sides of the street, waving, smiling, saying hello. I could see Paul grinning, his dimples, his chuckle, the sparkle in his eye. I could see his personality, how welcoming and inclusive he was of everyone he met. Well. Let’s just say I had a moment. A grief-bomb. I felt panicky. I knew I needed a safe place to compose myself but didn’t know where to go. I needed to be alone for a just minute or two. My office was too far away. I ended up (where else?) in a bathroom. Some bomb shelter, huh? Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to reel it back in. I am particularly moved and wistful when I talk with someone who knew Paul before we were us. They are a treasure trove. The same is true of people who knew me before my mother died. They not only contain memories of those I lost. They also contain memories of me, who I was in my previous life when those I loved were still with me. Through these treasure-trove people I can access that part of myself that was also lost. John Pavlovitz beautifully writes about this loss of self in losing others in his post here.

I was just about to begin the first set at a recent tennis match when my opponent said, “Is he here for you?” I looked around to see a man leaning on the fence. He was watching, looking out across several matches that were in play. “No, not for me,” I said with a sigh. “Definitely not for me.” FfwwwhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeueeeeeuuuuuuuueBOOM! Grief-bomb. I didn’t win that match by the way. Paul used to come watch all my tennis matches. He was there, supporting me, cheering me on, listening when I was frustrated over a silly loss, and celebrating a win or hard fought loss. He was always there. I was so proud of that, that I had a partner who took pride in me.

A new friend, someone who never met my husband, saw a picture of my son and said, “He looks so much like you!” The day our son was born I labored for 14 hours. Even only seconds old, it was clear to everyone in the room that I had just labored for 14 hours to produce a clone of his father. It didn’t bother me a bit, but I think the nurses felt sorry for me to have labored so long with absolutely no evidence that I was his mother at all! One of them leaned in close to me, I promise I’m not making this up, and said, “Oh, honey, he has your eyelashes.” That’s it. Our son has my eyelashes. Anyone who knew or saw my husband would never say that he looks like me. I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard someone say that our son looks like me. The only reason someone would ever say such a thing is if his father wasn’t present. And he’s not. Paul’s not here. As if I needed another grief-bomb as a reminder.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror today and something caught my eye. The weather has changed here so as I was rushing out the house this morning I grabbed a sweater and pulled it on against the brisk morning air. Turns out it’s the little, black cardigan I was wearing the day of Paul’s visitation. I was frozen in place looking at myself in the mirror, remembering the way I looked and feeling the way I felt that day at the funeral home. Will the bombing never stop?

***

In Grief’s Waiting Room.

I’m not well. I want to get better. I need help to do that. I make an appointment. I arrive at the office. I wait, and I wait, and I wait. Where am I? In grief’s waiting room, and praying to hear someone call next!

There is a poem by John Milton that I never tire of reading. It is lovely, full, and rich. Milton wrote it when he was going blind. It is a great comfort to me because Milton proposes that even waiting is useful to God when it is done with patience and faith.

When I consider how my light is spent/Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,/And that one talent which is death to hide/Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent/To serve therewith my Maker, and present/My true account, lest he returning chide;/”Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”/I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent/That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best/Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state/Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed/And post o’er land and ocean without rest:/They also serve who only stand and wait.

Grief is at once both an extraordinary and fundamental life experience. I wish I didn’t understand it the way I do. I wish it didn’t feel like an old bathrobe, but it does. It’s worn and faded with holes in it, and well, it’s starting to stink. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful. It’s too big. It’s too small. It fits. It’s comfortable, but it’s time to let it go. No, maybe I’ll just keep it. Or maybe I will burn it.

Knowing this second year might be more difficult, I began the year by choosing some words that captured my intention, words to guide me and help me stay focused during times like this when I am feeling out-of-sorts. A fellow grieving blogger calls this feeling unsettling. The words I chose, remember, release, emerge, have also become a way to gauge my progress. The remembering is going well. I can enjoy my memories and share them. I have also been able to release my grip on some of the security blankets I’ve held so tightly. However, this emerging business is tougher. I’d say right now my little grief engines have stalled. I’m tired. I need to rest.

There was a time when I could not project myself into the future; my being into the future. Think about that. I didn’t know what I looked like in the future. I could not produce an image of that in my mind. I couldn’t see myself waking up in the morning. I didn’t know what that looked like. I couldn’t create an image of myself at a point, at any point, in the future. We don’t even realize it, but we see ourselves in the future in our mind, at an appointment, an event, at work, even doing everyday tasks as in ‘I need to wash clothes when I get home this afternoon.’ There’s an image or a feeling attached to that. Our brains do this for us without us even being aware. It’s our continuous, ongoing, narrative stream of life and living. In the weeks and months after Paul died, I was no longer cognitively capable of this. Nowadays, the multi-verse lives inside me, a network of alternate timelines lay stretched out across my mind. My imagination can choose any one of them, and in a blink, I’m living out another of my life’s possible scenarios. In one of the alternates, weeks or months after Paul died, I drove out to the beach, walked into the ocean, and never came out. In another of the alternates, we found the cancer sooner. We had longer to say to goodbye. In yet another, there was no cancer at all. We lived out the fullness of our lives together. But perhaps we did that anyway.

***

This is my favorite time of year in the south. That probably sounds strange since it’s not filled with the picturesque beauty of spring flowers in bloom or the long, gorgeous sunshine-filled days of summer, but it’s lovely in its own quiet, subtle ways. The softer temperatures and cooler breezes, hushed colors, and fuzzy, autumn light signals to me that it’s time to rest, to think deeper, to ponder, to move a little slower but not before we are gifted with the last fruit of summer, the persimmon.

Photo credit: Christine Allston Seabrook

Persimmons are beautiful, glowing yellow-orange orbs that hang like miniature lanterns from their branches. The harvest may be late, but it is, oh, so, sweet. They are worth the wait. They can be eaten as-is or used in all the ways that fruit can be used. My favorite is permission cake. Here’s a recipe:

Persimmon & Caramel Upside-Down Cake

Topping

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 medium-sized persimmons, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

Cake

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup milk
  1. Heat over to 325 degrees/F. Spray bottom and sides of 8- or 9- inch square pan with cooking spray.
  2. In 1-quart saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Pour into pan; spread evenly. Arrange persimmon wedges over brown sugar mixture, overlapping tightly and making 2 layers if necessary.
  3. In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In large bowl, beat 1 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup butter with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one a time until smooth. Add vanilla. Gradually beat in flour mixture alternately with milk, beating after each addition until smooth. Spread batter over persimmon wedges in brown sugar mixture.
  4. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on cooling rack 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat whipping cream on high speed until it begins to thicken. Gradually add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, beating until soft peaks form.
  5. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen the cake. Place heatproof serving plate upside down over pan; turn plate and pan over. Remove pan. Serve warm cake with whipped cream. Store cake loosely covered.

***

This is also the time of year that people of the Jewish faith celebrate Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, some times called the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s a harvest celebration, a time to thank God for his gracious provision. It is also a time to remember the Hebrew peoples’ journey from Egypt to Canaan when they lived in small booths. During the feast days, the faithful are encouraged to construct small, temporary shelters that are decorated with plants, palm fronds, and different kinds of fruits. As a young child, Jesus would have celebrated this holiday with his family and community members.

As always, God is right on time with His presence in His Word, in my mind, and in my heart. God has surely provided for me, and I am thankful. He is my shelter from grief-bombs and from all of the assaults that are the result of living in a broken world. I, too, am on a journey that is difficult and God in His mercy and grace provides me with rest, comfort, and provision just as he did for the Israelites on their long, desert journey.

***

I’ll leave you with Romans 8:25 from the New Living Translation because I love how God’s word speaks truth to me in my moment of need. “But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.” So, what about me? Am I willing to wait on the promises of the Lord? Do I say ‘I don’t deserve this’? Do I say ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to be’? No, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. All is exactly as God intended, and I am content with his Grace. Content with his Grace in my brokenness, in my pain and suffering, in my grief, and I am thankful. There’s also this from Psalm 61:4, “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” The Lord’s Word and loving kindness are my shelter and my stronghold. The bombs may fall, but I will shelter in the safety of His love.

Confidently patient, Malia

It’s not the end of the world. Except, when it is.

“It’s not the end of the world.” Have you ever used that phrase? Have you said it to someone who was taking something very hard and perhaps needed some perspective on the situation? Has someone said it to you? I have certainly dished it out on occasion and been on the receiving end, too. And, to be frank, there are times when I needed to both hear it and consider its element of truth. Sometimes we do need that shot or jolt of perspective to snap us out of being overly distraught about a disappointment or challenge that, in the grand scheme of things, is a bump in the road, not a mountain but merely a mole hill. That’s another often used phrase, at least in the south anyway, that is usually meant to gently snap someone out of a funk over one of life’s many challenges and obstacles. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.

However, when my husband died, it literally was the end of the world. As I knew it. I remember having that exact feeling and thought when my mother died, too. My life is over. And, when Paul died, I thought, Damn. My life is over. Again.

There’s a knee-jerk reaction from people when thoughts like this are said out loud….“Don’t say that!” and “Oh, now, that’s not true”. These rebuttals are said presumably to be a comfort but are more likely meant to quiet the grieving person because the raw truth out and running loose around the room is just too much for most people to handle. So, just for future reference for those of you in proximity to a griever, the preferred response, in my opinion, is one that is honest, acknowledges the deeper meaning of such statements, and at the same time, offers hope and encouragement. It should go something like this, “You’re right. Life as you knew it, your life together, is over. Now, you will start, little by little, to build a new life for yourself, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

The question then becomes how we are going to build and shape that new life, our new world. This is where grief becomes a vehicle for growth. My first bout with grief when my mother died was such a different experience than this has been. Bout is a wrestling or boxing match term but is often used to refer to an attack of illness or strong emotion of a specified kind. I think grief qualifies. As a child, I made grief my friend, my partner, my security, because it was always there. As an adult, I have co-opted grief and used it as a spring board to the rest of my life. It might just be the difference between experiencing grief as a child versus as an adult, or it could be an indicator of where I am in my spiritual development. Ephesians 4:11-16 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from who the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Yes, indeed.

In Isaiah 6:1-7, Isaiah has an encounter with God. In a vision, he saw God and with that his sin was revealed, exposed. He saw clearly how broken beyond repair he was. He said, “Woe is me! for I am undone”. In another translation he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then, in Isaiah’s vision, a seraphim with a set of tongs holding a burning, hot coal that had been taken from the altar flew to him and touched his lips with the coal. The seraphim announced that Isaiah was cleansed. His sins had been atoned for. He had been restored to a right relationship with God. An encounter with God enables us to see ourselves more clearly. It is difficult. It can be painful, but it is critical to self-awareness and self-knowledge. Plato said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. There is nothing like grief for giving us the opportunity to examine our lives, to take stock, to do a complete personal inventory to see where the shelves are full and where they are lacking.

So, just recently, I’ve started to notice some signs of progress. One in particular got my attention. I have actually been feeling well enough to start making some changes in the house. I updated the family pictures, changed around some furniture, started redecorating the guest bedrooms, and replaced some framed artwork with different artwork. This may seem trivial, but I take it as a significant indicator of my health and well-being, my progress, that I’m able to make changes in the house instead of treating it like a shrine. If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you might think to yourself, “What is she talking about? She has jumped out of plane, taken on a new position at work, successfully developed new routines, and even traveled to another continent, by herself no less! Are those not greater evidence of progress than moving some stuff around in the house?” Not really, and here’s why. All of those accomplishments are entirely novel. They have no connection to my life with Paul. The real challenge and the real progress is in adjusting to doing everyday life without Paul.

Here are some more areas that I count as signs of progress…..

I can sit on the couch alone and watch TV.

I can tolerate something different in my home. I can tolerate household items being in a different location in the house.

I can make food for myself (occasionally) beyond a frozen dinner.

I can project myself into the future. I can imagine what the future looks like with me in it.

I can go to work consistently.

I can sleep <most> nights.

I can go inside the grocery store if I have to instead of using the pick-up service.

I can sit through a church service (still glued to our pew though) without tears or having to excuse myself.

And, finally, drum roll please……the morning, kitchen paralysis has been replaced by the morning, kitchen dance-jam with the dogs and often shared with friends on the Marco Polo app.

Rock on, my friends. Rock on, Malia