Countrywoman

Two roosters. Polish folk art.

“Do you know kielbasa?” She bewitched me and then owned me with her intense blue eyes. Eyes that were light and deep blue at the same time. Like the beginning of a night sky, with the lightest brightest blue at the horizon almost immediately becoming a deeper darker murkier and much more complex blue until it became black-blue.

I couldn’t look away. She reeled me in by calling out more food of our people.

“The haloopschi?” I didn’t get that one, but I told her I made golabki.

She held up her little Polacki hands and cupped them together. “The stuffed cabbage?” And then to the common translation, “the pigs in the blanket!?!”

I nodded. She never made them herself but her galaxy eyes lifted to the heavens to savor her memory of those cabbage rolls braised in tomato. She bored through the simple green in my own eyes and planted herself into the ethnic part of of the tribal part of my brain.

In unision we said, “pierogi.”

We both blinked and took a step back. Not because we jinxed, but because we knew that we were both–each of us–slicing through a buttery stuffed dumpling using our thought forks. We synchronously met that most pure, delicate and delicious victual in our now collective concentration. We were conjoined on the holy grail of Polish-American cuisine. You know it’s just that good when six of the items on the Buzzfeed list of Polish foods are pierogi, nos. 18-23.

Our sentences overlapped and intertwined. “My My mother aunt made them made them. So good. Oh my god!” We licked our respective lips. Hers more wrinkled at the edges than mine. Mine well on the way there, though.

She asked where I was from in the same paragraph without sentences that simultaneously shared that she was from Western Pennsylvania. I braided her words with mine, “Detroit.” We nodded, again. In unison, again. She returned to kielbasa.

“That Hillshire Farms, like what is that? Not like what we got, what we ate.” I know that we  were both cutting into the taut skin of the red sausage, of watching the fatty juices running out and of filling our nostrils with garlic forward porkiness. If porkiness is a word. But it definitely, especially when combined with smokiness, says Polish sausage.

This is the prototypical exchange of all Polish Americans. It’s always about our food and our church and our families.

“You Catholic?” I nodded. No reason to parse it out right now.

“How come you were to Ireland and haven’t been to Poland? You gotta go.”

She was a very slight woman. She was actually tiny.  A septuagenarian with a little thinning of her bleached hair that was short but wavy, especially at the ends. She made no mistakes on her makeup, not an overly and oddly lined eye, not a big pink blotch on her uplifted cheeks. Her spring sweater was a cream with a ribbon of gold around the neckline.

A newlywed, she met her husband on Match.com and was unsure about what she had done. Her partner of forty-eight years had preceded her and before he left this world, told her to be happy. She didn’t want to be lonely. So she accepted an uneasy ease with her first spouse, after spending the prior half-century with a different man.

She didn’t know her husband’s ethnicity, but he had lived in Europe for a few years, but maybe he was French? She wasn’t sure, but in her eighth decade after seventy-four years with the same name, she was figuring out how to go by a new married name. Six months into matrimony, she still went by her own name. She said she was going to change it.

In the meantime, she told me how lovely the Poles were and how her Jewish partner make the pilgrimage to see the Black Madonna of Częstochowa on his hands and knees, but her tour walked through. This story of his devotion delighted her, and me.

She took my card and said that I’d hear from her. I hope so. I hugged my new friend, she joined her delightful new husband, and we parted as the bellman opened the door onto the street.

Good Girl

Bretange, 9/11 rescue dog. From the book "Retrieved" by photographer Charlotte Dumas.
Betrange a 9/11 rescue dog. From “Retrieved” by photographer Charlotte Dumas.

Have you ever loved a dog?

If you haven’t I don’t know that I can help you understand it. There are only about a million and sixty-seven books about dogs people have loved. There’s Sounder, Old Yeller, Marley & Me, Good Dog Carl, and if you read The Art of Racing in the Rain and are not in a pile of rain of your own making, let me know.

I loved My Life In Dog Years and the science-y Inside of a Dog and the (controversial) zen of training by the Monks of New Skete,  How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. Also movies. Mostly made out of books. Some, like All Dogs Go to Heaven just say it all.

A list of books and movies, though, doesn’t tell you about loving a dog. The thing about loving a dog is that it is always 100% mutual. So maybe it’s not so much about loving a dog as being loved by a dog.

I didn’t grow up with a dog in my house, but we had a dog. My grandmother had a dog and he was ours. His name was Napoleon. My uncle, who was a jerk, named him. We called this pup, Nappy. He was my first dog. He would give you his paw. He was very smart and never stepped into the house from the kitchen. He would go out back, but never step in. I know this because we tried to get him into the dining room. Wasn’t happening. I think it hurt his feelings that he couldn’t accommodate our wishes.

Nappy was my first, but not my last. I’ve known many dogs. Dogs of friends, like Max a significant German Shepard who would kill a dog walking on his sidewalk but would lie down next to the couch waiting for my fingers to stroke the spot between his large and alert ears and was afraid of the kitten who moved into the house. Working dogs, like crazy yellow lab Charlie who’d run across the parking lot at the unnamed secure location I worked to flop at my feet and splay for a belly scratch.

Three sweet pups have been a part of my family. Each of these roommates have been very different, but all are most dear and have loved me more than I deserve. Way more than I deserve. Even this current one, whose huge head is at this exact very moment draped on my lap and topped by my laptop, and who has been known to send me to the hospital. Twice. So far. But he’s a good boy. Who’s a good boy? Yes, he is.

So, I am a sucker for dogs, for dogs who love you. For dogs who look at you with the soul of god (you do realize that god is dog spelled backwards, don’t you?). Not really piercing you because it doesn’t hurt, but with a look that lays your own soul bare in a way that exposes you without shame and with an embrace. So when I heard, I was so sad.

Bretagne died today. She is a dog that I have never met but who is in a book I have, a picture book of the search and rescue dogs who were tasked to find survivors on 9/11. She worked for FEMA.

In September 2001, amid the twisted pile of steel beams, concrete and ash where the World Trade Center once stood, 300 or so search dogs worked long hours and used their powerful noses to try to find survivors.

On Monday afternoon, the last of those search dogs died at age 16 with her longtime handler and best friend by her side. —more

And when I read that, I cried. Not because it was cruel, but because she was a good girl. Yes. She was.

Clifden, County Galway

Clifden, County Galway.

“You’ve never been out drinking before with the Doc.” Spake the Big Guy to Baby Bear.

We had driven our longest stretch, from Belfast to County Galway. We bid our proprietor, Joe, goodbye. We had no idea what he said in return. Didn’t have a clue what anyone said in Belfast.

Except when Joe kept asking the other B&B guests if they “carikikeee reedeey.” We pieced together that he was asking about the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge that was closed due to wind the day we were there. The young woman getting her tea did not understand and batted the old man away.

Joe the Proprietor asked us if we wanted him to take our picture. At least that’s what we think he said, since he motioned to the camera. He took a great one. I wish we got a photo with him.

He waved us away early that morning, after a full Irish, for some.  Not for me. Too much food. Seriously, who can eat that much?

We had a day’s goal to cross the country and make it to Kylemore Abbey for an afternoon view. Legs were folded and bodies curled in the back of the bitty car. The soundtrack was the white noise of light snores.

We drove across green rolling fields spotted with bright yellow bushes that over the miles was recast into the brown mountains of the West. The road was a taupe ribbon on the flats that looped around the feet of the brown peaks. Some turns unveiled blue and green flecked water pocked with a flurry of little white waves.

We had a map and a better than decent idea of where we we were headed. GPS was spotty, but based on our Belfast wifi’d  maps, we made it to the Abbey for an explore. The castle and formal garden were charming, but, oh, the wild grounds. The Victorian era lord planted a zillion trees and brought in pheasants and foxes and stag and a gamekeeper so he could host hunting parties. I’m thinking The Rules of the Game.

Long day. We followed the coast on mission for dinner and a bed. Leenane was behind us. We followed the coast through delightful Letterfrack and pressed on a few miles to Clifden.

Still hugging the coast, we pass some green covered ruins and roll into the nominal capital of Connemara. The main street is a ring, but we didn’t follow it to infinity. As we were making the first lean around the loop I saw the name of a B&B that The Spouse found in his Kindle Fodor’s.

“Go straight!”

The overtaxed, driving-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road operator rolled down the hill to the sought respite. We were welcomed by the glance of a fluff of a mostly sleeping dog  next to a stoked fireplace. Fire. Pup. Good signs.

The host came out and gave us two rooms. We gratefully walked the steps and put our bags down. The Spouse asked me about the price. I hadn’t asked. I just made the deal. Two rooms with breakfast. Host gave us the keys. It wasn’t like a real transaction. Nobody asked for a credit card. It was friendly. We would pay.

We made friends with the host who spent a decade a decade ago in D.C. environs. Small world. He returned to Ireland, developed the guesthouse and was raising his family with the white fluff dog, Roxy. He pointed us to dinner options 93 steps away. We stepped.

The season was just beginning and all the pubs and restaurants were open. We walked up and down the main drag and settled on a dining room that was beautiful and beautifully delicious. I still don’t understand how such a small town could support quality fine dining. But fine it definitely was.

The non-drivers wanted to spend time listening to music with a pint. The driver had had enough good craic and walked the 93 steps back to the guesthouse to settle for the night.

And that’s how Baby Bear had his first time out drinking with the Doc.

We sat at the bar at the pub with the chalkboard promising live music. We ordered a pint. The joint was shyte. We finished and moved on.

Two storefronts down we found a young man singing and playing his guitar in a window bay, opposite a bulky bar and next to a fireplace hearth. We sat in front of the hearth and ordered more pints. We had the type of talk you have when you’ve eaten a great meal, consumed a few pints, are surrounded by good music and have no place to be.

As we walked the 93 steps back to that night’s headquarters, we crossed a street to see a beautiful moon hanging over the street lamps, watching us from a comforter of clouds.

It had been building all afternoon and evening, but at that moment, when I saw that moon, I fell utterly and completely in love with Clifden, County Galway.

Sláinte

 

Wedded Abyss

FLOTUS and POTUS looking fly.

I hear that The Spouse and I look amazingly happy on Facebook. One friend asked me, “How could two people be so ‘lovey-dovey’?”

And I’m all like, “So you think I’m gonna to post pictures of us fighting?”

That would be the most vainglorious of selfies. Imagine me: eyes bulging, spit flying from angry lips, hair akimbo’d by angry electrical pulses emitting from my head? And The Spouse with a sneer, egging on my insane wrath with an infuriating indifference.

Yeah, let me just whip out the camera for that one.

Seriously, that day I yelled The Spouse out of the house? I’m running barefoot down the porch steps after the jeep, hurling profanity as it drives away leaving me standing in the middle of the street with no target for my denigration but plenty of fuel to continue the tirade.

Nope. No camera for that one either. And, let me tell you, if someone else filmed it, I sure as hell would not post it, tag us and type #LOL with a smiley emoji.

So, I can’t tell you if two people can have a sustained level of the “lovey-dovies.”
You never know what actually goes on between two people. We’ve had friends who shocked us all when they announced their divorce. Contrast that with me and The Spouse whose friends have likely been waiting on our announcement–all bets off for decades now.

Makes me think about the fetishized relationship between Michelle and Barack Obama. People project their ideals of a “good marriage” on the first couple. They’re so in love. They have a great relationship. They have such a great time together. Blah. Blah. Blah.

I expect that sometimes they disagree and may even find the other disagreeable. I bet that more than once someone has been accused by the other of being inconsiderate or even selfish. I would not be surprised if there’s an occasional few hours, or even few days, when iciness surrounds home and hearth, when two people are in the same room and are not together. Somebody may harbor uncharitable thoughts. Someone may even voice them.

Does that make the relationship a bad one? A good one? I don’t know, but it sounds like a real one.

I don’t want a marriage like the Obamas’–or anyone else’s. I have enough trouble with the one I have. The one that’s mine. That’s ours. That’ll do.

Food Affairs

dark chocolate squares. yum

I had a boss once who didn’t like food. He had the palette of a 4-year-old.

He’d eat spaghetti with 70s-style Ragu™ sauce that was most likely corn starch, corn syrup solids and red dye no. 2 and yellow dye no. 6. No meat product. No mushrooms. No chunks of anything. Nothing but a red-ish orange coating on well cooked starch.

He’d eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too. Always creamy peanut butter. Always grape jelly, since preserves or jams had an unpleasant texture–which for him was any texture. It was important to him to be healthy, so he spread the peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread, soft wheat bread. He was proud of himself when he tried quiche. He liked it. We’d joke and call it egg pie. He called himself sophisticated.

The guy took no pleasure out of food. He ate to live.

I was thinking about the relationships we have to food. His relationship would be considered a good one by many. Food had no power over him. It was not imbued with a special meaning. It gave him no reward. It wasn’t a treat. It was fuel.

I sent Baby Bear some chocolates with a request to be his Valentine. I sent it as a gift. I sent it because I love him. I sent some common chocolate and some better chocolate.

The common chocolate is good. It’s a quick hit of sweet and crunch. The chocolate wraps around a cookie wafer. The combination is good. You might hold the candy between your fingers as you bite it, and if you’re slow, it leaves some residue that you lick off. It can incite a smile.

The better chocolate is richer and darker. It has some sweet. It has some layers of bitter, too, like cherry coffee beans. When you bite it there is a satisfying snap. If you let it sit on your tongue it begins to break down. It becomes thick and creamy and swirly. There is a richness, a mouthfeel that helps you remember it after it melts away.

When you share the chocolate with someone–especially the better chocolate–you look at each other and say, “mmmmmm.” You might slightly close your eyes as you savor it.

I love food. I raised my kids to love food. And we love it together. We reward ourselves with a good dinner or maybe even ice cream. It wasn’t so much used as a bribe, but we would use circumstance as a justification to take pleasure in the taste and experience of food. A good report card was an excuse for Momma’s Fried Chicken. And a birthday was a reason to make paella for a table full of his friends. It’s making it sometimes. Or buying it sometimes [this one was REALLY good].

It’s definitely not about volume, but it is about consuming and enjoying. Both at the same time. In some books this is not a healthy relationship with food.

I smell the onions and garlic in a tomatoey sweet homemade sauce. It’s chunky and spicy and full of good fats and hot Italian sausage. The Spouse is making it. We will sit down and eat it. He made it for me. It makes me feel loved. We are living to eat.

I know. I’m doing it wrong, again.

 

V.D.

that stupid bad-guy prince from Frozen being mean on a valentines card.

Somebody asked me what I was doing for Valentine’s Day. We were in the kitchen at work. People were talking about their weekend plans–especially looking forward to a federally induced 3-day weekend.

“So, you have plans for Valentine’s Day?”

I was in the midst of my beeline for the coffee maker. I came to an immediate and full stop. The question halted me, and, before I could check myself, I said that Valentine’s Day was a bullshit holiday.

Now everyone in the kitchen froze. The only sound was the very faint whirring of the microwave in the background. Someone was making oatmeal, I think.

I realized what I did. I spoke bad about that (b.s.) holiday of romance among people who were primed for romance. Or pined for romance. Or thought that they were supposed to participate in this external marker for romance.

And here I was, offering grumpy-Sanders, bellicose-Trump pronouncements on hearts, chocolates and flowers. On overpriced dinners for amateurs who only go out once or twice a year.

Truthfully, I like chocolates and flowers and fancy dinners. I often buy them myself. It was part of my training, because my truly loving spouse does not show unending devotion via these symbols. [Except for the dinners. We do that together. They are fun. We like to eat. And drink fancy drinks. And wine, too.] We have our own way of maintaining civility and sparks just shy of an incendiary device as part of our long term Waltz of the Incompatibles.

So my highly attuned senses dismissed the idea that V-day is important to show love in your life. Dismissed it a little too quickly and with a bit too much fervor.

Someone broke the silence and said, “I’d think you’d be like that about Valentine’s Day.”

I really appreciate that “do what you want” attitude. So, you all do you.

Beds

I can’t really remember the beginning of this story. There have been so many versions of the beginning that I can’t quite place the proximate cause. And the initial what really isn’t important.

Where my memory–and this story–starts is driving up to Henry Ford Macomb Hospital on 19 Mile Road. It was dark, but that doesn’t mean too much in mid-December Michigan. If it was dark it could have been 5 pm, but I think it was closer to eight.

I don’t know if I checked into the hotel first, but I must have so I wouldn’t be distracted by that personal logistical detail of where I would sleep.

Although she’d been at Henry Ford Macomb before, I hadn’t. She had been abulanced to the ER the day before. There was confusion about whether she was getting admitted so I flew in to see what was happening.

I walked into the hospital to find her room. She didn’t have one. Somehow she was still in the ER and had been for 36 hours. The nice lady at the desk told me to get back in my car and drive around the hospital to the ER entrance. I asked if I could walk and she looked at me like I didn’t realize that I was in the Motor City where people do NOT walk when they could drive.

She was in an observation bay at the far end of the ER, a little bitty lump underneath a bunch of blankets that doubled her silhouette. She was asleep so I brushed a kiss on her wisps of white hair. Her skin was gray. I followed the IV to see that she was getting blood. To counteract that gray, I supposed.

There was a bunch of untouched food on the tray next to her and some empty blood bags.

This joint was a disaster. Patients in ER limbo for days. Improper biohazard handling. An impotent patient advocacy process. (Why would an organization create multiple ineffective avenues for remediation? You only need one ineffective procedure.)

She was surprised to see me when she woke up, except she really wasn’t. Waking up in a hospital bed is accompanied by a through-the-looking-glass haze, and, while I didn’t belong in this scene neither did she.

Her smile was weak, but it was sunny and I was so happy to be there: to advocate for her; to make the nurses really see her; to argue about a room with the moronic patient advocate; to steamroller through to the hospital president; and to get what she needed.

I was there to watch the miracle blood bring back the color in her cheeks and watch her lose her wilt. I sat with her for a few days. I held her hand. I made sure she ordered food and that she ate it. I positioned her poinsettia so she could remark again and again on how beautiful it was. I held her hand again, and rubbed her back. And she melted at the touch. I sat next to her with my computer on my lap so she would wake up and see me. We chit chatted about pretty much nothing.

I did this, I thought, for her. But when she peacefully died in her sleep in her own bed a short few weeks later, I knew that I had done it for me and that it was my hand melting when I touched hers.

How fortunate that the hospital was such a shit-show. I am grateful for a last intimate connection. I am happy that I was present with her and she with me. It was a good-bye that I didn’t recognize in that moment. But it was good.

Thinking about you, Mom, especially today, the anniversary of that last time you snuggled up in your bed and went to sleep. Sweet dreams.

What Does the Pope Eat?

Walking up to the small shrine in the hill at Kylemore Abbey, County Galway.

I grew up in a Catholic church filled with banners of doves and peace signs draping the altar and hanging behind the choir of earnest guitarists singing folk versions of psalms. And, once, even bongo drums.

My favorite priest was Father Mike. The other priests were Father LastNames. Mike had a beard and longish hair. He was Jesus-esque. Jesus was a carnie in a play, and his disciples were nice carnie hippies.

This was working class Detroit.

Parishioners were UAW members, many were immigrants from Italy, and most everyone’s last name ended in a vowel. Ventimiglia. Bornkowski. Buscemi. Kozlowski. Lucido.

We went to public school and were threatened occasionally with Catholic school if we didn’t straighten up.

To relieve boredom at a time when you didn’t bring activities for kids to Mass, I poured through my misselette reading next week’s gospel–or The Adventures of Jesus as I thought of them. My favorite stories told of houses built on sand, or the hero saving a woman from a crazed crowd, or the magic feeding of a mountain with a few fish. The ones I that bored me started off, “Beloved…”

I didn’t like confession in a dark phone booth, but we did it as a group and that was easy. I received Confirmation–also known as the sacrament of exit. And I, too, mostly left.

I was indoctrinated, though. I knew the secret handshakes. And I knew that Jesus was love.

I got married in Church and, in the sacrament of re-entering, I had kids. We could afford the parish school and the city schools were mostly sketchy.

My son was an altar server. He wanted me to be a lay minister of communion. The choir director would see me singing and asked me to join the music ministry. I served on the school committee to help in technology, but refused Parish Council. Because I’m a really bad Catholic. If I served during Mass I’m sure that the bigger than life size crucifix would crash onto the altar and it’d be my fault.

I am a cafeteria Catholic. I take what I want and maybe need, but when the Church veers from the Jesus-of-my-youth’s message of love, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness, I leave my tray at the cash register. Even if that means I leave behind community, spirituality and faith.

I really don’t believe in God. Not some old white guy who directs our lives. Really, if you were the Maker of the Universe, would you meddle in the individual heartbreaks of the human-ants? Really?

But we meddle in each other’s lives. And we sometimes do it with love, tolerance, compassion and forgiveness. And we make God when we do that.

And that’s what I placed on my battered cafeteria tray this week as I rapturously followed Pope Francis storming my city.

And he’s right. The Pope that is. God is love. That’s it. All the rest is decoration.

So today, and tomorrow and every day, I’m gonna make me some God.

Amen.

Giving Thanks

boys walking

I have been quite a laggard in postings. My apologies to my loyal reader. As the turkey roasts, I am thinking about the thanks I am giving.

  • I am thankful that the 17-year-old hooked me up with my new favorite band. Great music to prep Thanksgiving Dinner by.
  • I am thankful that the Spouse has cooked dinner pretty much every night since September 15. AND has done the dishes, too.
  • I am thankful that the 14-year-old has introduced me to the FIERCE sport of wrasslin’. Little girls cried during the last meet. Fierce, I tell you.
  • I am thankful for working in the Bush administration. Without those guys, I would have never learned new levels of tolerance–and never loved so many Republicans. Yes, they are people, too.
  • I am thankful that we have good health insurance, didn’t get dumb in the mortgage market, live within our means and have stable jobs. I pray that the new guys–with our help–make changes so that more people can give this set of thanks next year.
  • I am thankful for Facebook. Sounds dumb, but it’s like living in a far-flung dorm–low pressure way to be in the lives of people you care about. (Sibling, get on the stick!)
  • I am thankful that my mother is a fighter. She has been in rehab 3 times over the past year, after a fall, a broken ankle, and then major GI surgery. Each time we worried that she might be too tired to push her 85-year-self through rehab. And each time she proves us wrong.
  • I am thankful that I have the best spouse, kids and dog in the whole wide world. Bar none. No one can dispute this. Don’t even try.

And I am thankful to you, my loyal reader. I write this mostly for me, but am thankful that you take some of your time to think with me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tub Thumping

“Well Doc, I think this is it.”

So said my Loyal Reader, reduced to maybe 80 pounds, her hands looking more like a bird’s foot than the hand that held a champagne glass. Her breathing supported by both a tube to her nose and a mask over her mouth wasn’t labored, and she apologized for the getup being awkward.

Her blue eyes were ringed indigo and bored straight into mine. “I am glad you came. I wanted to say goodbye.”

My Spouse–away in NYC–had called the night before, telling me that she only had a few days left. I felt like I was hit in the stomach. It was dumb to be shocked–she had stage iv colon cancer, prognosis is lousy.

Except she had me totally fooled. She had me convinced that she was going to kick this cancer-thing. Even after she lost the month of August when she was sedated and intubated–she was mad that it took her so long to regain the strength and to relearn to walk. She had been back and forth with chemo and radiation and surgery for two years. She decided that she was going to do whatever she could to get better, and it was working.

I walked in to her postage stamp sized room and saw her kids and husband crowded inside were wearing yellow hospital garb. I retreated as instructed and donned the disposable gown. I clumsily kissed her cheek, then her hand, and then her husband who looked so so so sad. I was thinking about pork roasts at her house and burnt ribs and blue martinis at my house. And my crewe, who earned the reputation of always leaving their house as the last guests, very late.

And then the times when she would tell me to be less cynical (Doc, think!), tell me that the Republicans didn’t have it all wrong (she worked for the RNC as a designer–not a believer–long before my foray into a Republican administration), and, most importantly, remind me that when my kids were in trouble that my job was to love them.

She was a good role model. She loved her kids–they had the best birthday parties and halloween costumes. She nurtured their creativity and embraced each of them for who they are. She raised three of the best people I know.

She was my most normal friend–not a D.C. type who was driven in that Washington kind of way. She would sit with me and drink beers at Redskins games while we chattered through 4 quarters of football. What was that score? She would tell me that I did something stupid, or ask me “Why?” when nobody else would.

I am glad that I told her that I love her every time I saw her. I am glad that I told her I love her last week. And I am so glad, and so fortunate, that she loved me.

She asked that we celebrate her life and have a party. I miss her.

Kris, this is for you,