The Sad Iron in My Trunk, and Other Mysteries

I had not intended, mind you, to purchase a sad iron.

And yet there it is, in my trunk, waiting to find its new home.

Let me go back.

When I read Maria von Trapp’s autobiography, I was intrigued by her description of all the really nice furniture that she bought at a discount at the local auction house near where the family lived in Pennsylvania. The auctioneer understood that Maria wanted to rescue items that were underappreciated, and hoped to put them to better use, so he often steered her to such things and manipulated the auction so her bid could win.  She stored the pieces in her barn while her husband grew increasingly concerned as the tables, chairs, and beds accumulated But when the family wanted to retire from touring and bought the property for their music camp that later became the Trapp Family Lodge, she was able to use her stash to furnish each of the rooms for the guests who came to sing, swim, and find friendship. I longed for a place like that auction house. Every American wants to be the catcher in the rye. I wanted to save underappreciated things, with no real sense of what or how or why,

Since we moved to Ohio, a friend whose taste I admire told me about the website she uses to find rare and special things, often at a good price. The first time I logged onto it,  “Everything But the House,” I was captivated. Books, maps, furniture, clothes, toys, antiques, overstock – so much available, and often for so little money. I have a large family and many godchildren, besides, and so I started searching for and acquiring unique gifts.

My favorite part is the lots, and they have become a metaphor for my life. I bid for a lot because it contains one thing I want, and I find myself with other, unexpected items. I bid on a lot for the clear plastic storage items, but it came with non-stick pots and pans from Germany and a set of three stacking orange, plastic mixing bowls. The pots became my go-to for bringing things to church. The mixing bowls serve as serving bowls for autumn themed parties. And the containers, the thing I wanted, have replaced some of the sour cream containers as homes for our leftovers. It was a very good upgrade.

The site has its Proustian moments. They had a glider just like the one that graced my grandparents front porch in West Medford back in the day. I did not buy it, but I shared the link with my cousins on Facebook and we all had a chance to remember sitting with Grandpa in the cool of the evening.

And I have found gifts for those for whom it is hard to shop. One brother-in-law is a Revolutionary War re-enactor, and he sometimes camps out at re-enacting sites. I never know what to buy him, but when I found a wooden box meant for carrying yak butter, I knew it was for him. And nobody bid against me. My goddaughter’s sister wants to be an “archeologist nun” when she grows up. In a lot of Dynasty Dolls, I spotted a nun in a white summer habit and black veil. She sported wire rim glasses and certainly could pass for an archeologist. The entire lot cost less than a Barbie doll, and the future monastic was thrilled with her gift.

I put things to use or give them away as fast as I can, so they don’t accumulate, but sometimes I have a residual stash. And so I have three hand crocheted afghans that came in handy at the River Blessing but that we won’t need till next year. I have extra copies of some Longfellow poems that I bought from a classroom set. The song books from 1973 that I just purchased came, inexplicably, with a roll for q player piano. And then there is the sad iron in my trunk.

Sad irons are not unhappy, they are just heavy, “sad” being an old form of the word “solid.” This formerly useful item came in an eclectic lot that included a cobalt blue oil lamp that I am saving for the next power outage, a beautiful glass bottle in the same shade that now holds our Holy Water, and an assortment of “bridge scoring sheets” that turned out to be useful small notebooks.

 I have a plan for the sad iron, which is why it is in my trunk. My first plan is to offer it to our local museum, an old house that has been furnished with period pieces. If they don’t want it, I will have a good excuse to visit local antique stores trying to sell it. My seemingly random purchases give me the means of helping and meeting others. They tickle my fancy. They give me something to share. And they give me something new to write about!

Writing prompt: Look among your things, choose something unusual, and write about it.

How did you acquire it?

What were you thinking?

How is it of use?

What is its significance in the larger sense? Write about it touching on memory and desire, times and places it brings to mind, things you don’t want to forget.

Feasting in Heaven and on Earth

 

Thou wast transfigured on the mountain, O Christ our God,

 showing to Thy disciples Thy glory as each one could endure;

shine forth Thou on us, who are sinners all, Thy light ever-unending

through the prayers of the Theotokos. O Light-giver, glory be to Thee.

Troparion for the Transfiguration

orthodoxaustin.org

In the Orthodox Church, we prepare for major feasts both spiritually and physically. And so we have Great Lent, but we also prepare decorated eggs and festal foods for Pascha. We have the Nativity Fast, but we also make treats and prepare presents for Christmas. On the Feast of the Transfiguration, we prepare baskets of fruit to be blessed.

Each Feast reminds us somehow of the others. Even though the Theotokos is not in the icon for this feast, it falls during the Dormition Fast, and it reminds us of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple. On that occasion, her father, St. Joachim, gave candles to all the little girls for them to hold as they accompanied the Theotokos to the Temple to live. On this feast, Christ took two trusted disciples up Mt. Tabor with him so they could understand that He is the God of the living and the dead, with Moses and Elijah appearing.

In the Church, we bless things. We do not believe that matter is evil. We bless water and we bless our homes with that water. We bless the ground and the harvest. We bless our vehicles and our journeys. We bless marriage and the children who come from it. And so during this season of fruitfulness, we gather and bless fruits. But just as preparing your house to be blessed or child to be baptised may not be intuitive, there is an art to preparing fruit to be blessed.

The late archpriest Roman Lukianov was my parish priest in Boston. He often drove me back to college after church, and took me on hospital visits and to nursing homes both because people needed a visit and because he knew that my fiance was a seminarian. (In the Orthodox Church, one should be either married or a monk to be ordained priest.) He also taught me how to cut the grapes for the basket of fruit to be blessed so that the priest doesn’t hand people either a whole bunch of grapes or a fistful of loose ones. Later, when my husband was sent to his second parish, the late archpriest Theodore Shevzov insisted on washing grapes a special way to remove all pesticides, and taught me how.

And sharing the good things are important. So, here is how to prepare a basket for Transfiguration.

Step One:

Preparing fruit for the basket to be blessed for the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord.

Step one: Clean the sink and fill it with cold water and a teaspoon or so of baking soda. The baking soda is to clean any residual pesticides off the grapes.

Step Two:

Put all your grapes in the sink and add more water if needed. Let them sit there while you do other things.

Step Three:

Carefully rinse the grapes in cold water and let them dry.
Prepare a place to put grape clusters, a strainer and bowl for loose grapes, and a good pair of scissors, but not your sewing scissors.
If you have a strainer to put over the drain, use it.
 
 
Step Four:
 
Cut the grapes into clusters and lay them out to dry. Throw out any nasty grapes and all the leftover stems. (Save the loose, single grapes for the Karnauch Family Transfiguration Dessert. Details to follow.)
 
 
Step Five:
 
Line your basket and one to give away with a clean towel, both to absorb water and to keep the wicker from scratching the fruit. Arrange the fruit as nicely as you can with the understanding that the baskets will shift en route to church and that we never fully obtain perfection in this life.
Cover the baskets with something pretty but not your Pascha basket cover because you don’t want grape stains on that. Put them somewhere safe near the door and buy a small candle to put in the basket when you get to church.
Don’t light it until the baskets are to be blessed.
Some parishes only bless grapes, other bless apples, etc. as well.
 
Karnauch Family Festal Dessert:
 
The Karnauch Family of Houston introduced us to the simplest and most wonderful dessert for the feast.
You spread a little honey on a plate.
You take the bowl of cold, loose grapes out of the refrigerator.
And you dip each grape in honey before eating it.
Best served when you have friends with whom to talk and share.
 
 
And a Story:
 
God does all things for a reason. One year when my children were all home, we were running VERY late and I couldn’t find any of our nice towels or basket covers. I made my cross and tore up an old white sheet from the rag bag and used part for lining the basket and part for covering it, because the higher value was to be at the service on time. The fabric was soaked, because I didn’t have time to drain the fruit properly, and I was mortified.
 
When it was time to bless the fruit, some latecomers shoved the baskets that had been placed on the tables earlier into my basket, with all the candles lit, and the corner of the sheet I used caught fire. Before I could react, however, the flame hit the soggy part of the sheet, the fire sputtered and died, the service went on, the fruit was blessed, and it was delicious, and it was a feast.
Come to church. Bring what you can. And if all you can bring is yourself, that is enough. Just come.
 
 
 
 
 

Coming Back Soon. Meanwhile…

Life has been complicated, and while I have many first drafts of posts on file since October, none were worthy to go up yet. My thoughts were too scattered and cloudy, as has been my heart. I traveled a bit. I drove to Boston to have a turn taking my sister with cancer to one of her chemo treatments and saw some of my adult children and siblings and their children en route. We’ve been blessed with more grandchildren, I’ve reconnected with old friends both online and in real life, and for this year’s plot twist, after I had been told that I had more basal cell carcinoma on the bridge of my greatly changed nose and to expect surgery, I was called in, instead, by my two awesome doctors for a second opion biopsy today because they looked again at the slides, conferred, and had doubts that it was that bad. It may be something easier to treat.

I thought I was reconciled to more of everything that recovery required this past year — scraping, slicing, and bandages; surgery and recovery; sleepless nights in the recliner downstairs so neither my husband nor I undid my stitches; numb minutes watching strange animal videos and old sitcomes while not being able to wear my eyeglasses to read. This isn’t exactly a complaint. I’m not especially brave or stoic, but when the choice is death or discomfort, I will celebrate discomfort as the much better outcome. Cheerfulness is a Christian duty, and courage can be contagious. It can even spread from person to person but also within us, unannounced. That was my aim, but I have been strangely subdued. I hadn’t realized that, like the smoke from Canadian wildfires, the anticipation of going back down the rabbit hole of Treatment had tinged my world view and kept me from making solid plans.

but this new development has made me feel like Mole casting aside his paintbrush at the beginning of “Wind in the Willows.” All of the sudden I am writing again, I am editing things and creating canva posts, and looking at new submissions to the press where I work and I plan on going back to camp, after three years away, to help once more in the kitchen to work with friends and family. I am looking forward to this, and have been in training in my own kitchen so I can prepare fruits and vegetables and clean pots and pans cooking for so many more than two. This is much better than whitewashing.

“The first pancake is lumpy.”

When the essays that were percolating in my brain are fully brewed, I will share them here. In the meanwhile, just a short slice of life, some talk in the car between my husband and me. His Russian is better than mine. What you have to know is this: the Russians have a saying, “первый блин комом,” meaning, “the first pancake is lumpy.” I use it a lot when I cook, and when I write, and even when I sing. And now I am contemplating all the many lumpy pancake varieties I can create.

Conversation in the car on the way to the doctor:

Me: “Sweetie, if one were to write ‘первый блин’ in English transliteration, how would one do so?
He: “Let’s see…. ‘p-e-r-v-y b-l-i-n.'”
Me: “Aw. Not ‘p-e-r-v-i-i?'”
He: “No, it’s ‘ы’ and not ‘и.'”
Me: “Drats.”
He: “Why?”
Me: “Well, you know how I’ve just tried making saurkraut, and my pickles and all sometimes come out great and then other times do not?”
He, cautiously: “Yes….?”
Me: “Well, it occurred to me that someday, when I get better at it, I could start a food business, and call it Pervii Blin Productions, but if I spell it the other way they people will think I mean ‘pervy’ in English, which is altogether different, and then I may as well call it Enron or something.
He: “It’s unfortunate, but, yes.”
Me: “And also, First Pancake Productions just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
He: “Alas, no.”

Back to the proverbial drawing board.
I am impressed at the fact that for the most part he kept his eyes on the road.

Sickness, Health, Soup

Ten weeks post-surgery, I am still healing, or being healed. Little by little I feel more like myself. I can wear turtlenecks if the collar is loose, I can read because I can now wear my glasses, as the stitches near the bridge of my nose have healed, I can go without my bandages for hours at a time (although my nose is always coated in bacitracin ointment, as is everything around me over time), and finally I want to write again. And so it’s time for both a writing prompt and a plug for a friend’s new book.

Illness

The writing prompt is about illness. Writing about illness calls for attention to detail, on the one hand, and the ability to share the fog of being part of an altered reality, on the other. Also, nothing tugs more at the memory than being sick with something old in a new place. Literature is full of good examples of writing about illness, and our lives are a fertile place to mine for specifics.

Life

I am old enough to have had a doctor who made house calls. How often my father paced, while holding me, before dawn, while we waited for our pediatrician, Dr. Zaudy, to arrive. Dr. Zaudy had been an instructor at Harvard Medical School and saved my life when I was an infant sick with pyloric stenosis. I grew up thinking that people can survive cancer, because my grandmother survived her breast cancer before I was born, and that both men and women can be doctors, because the smartest doctor my father could find was a woman. I remember being hot with fever, as Dad held me on his shoulder and paced, saying reassuring things and checking the window to see if the doctor had come. Our floors were wooden, with rugs, and the view from his shoulder changed from carpet to wood, wood to carpet, in the penumbral darkness, until all the lights went on because the doctor had arrived, and everything was, by definition, going to be better.

My brothers and I shared all the illnesses for which there were no shots at the time. I got mumps, and was taken away from Dad and  my brother for the duration. The three of us got chicken pox, one after another after another. We had a specific puke basin for when we were vomiting, and we sometimes dosed with cola syrup, pink medicine or even paregoric. When we made it to the toilet in time to throw up there, our mother put her hand on our foreheads to keep our heads from jerking forward. After Mamma died, my brother told me that as ac child he had thought, “What would happen if Mamma died, and there was no one to hold my forehead?” It was a sad and grateful thought.

High School

After Mamma died and Dad remarried, we called our stepmother Mom. She used to read to us when we were sick, in between taking care of our growing family and everything else in the house Dad earnestly placed a soggy, folded face cloth on our foreheads and after he left the room Mom would wring it out a little and dry our necks so they didn’t tickle. We could have ginger ale, a forbidden treat, but only served warm and flat.

The worst illness I had as a teenager was a strange stomach bug that I got shortly after we moved back into the house we had lived in before my mother died. We had lived for a while in another part of Roslindale, one of Boston’s neighborhoods, but we had a series of tenants who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the rent, including some who also didn’t want to pay for heating oil, so they burned the rosewood mantlepiece in the non-functioning fireplace. So to save money, we moved back into the house we had grown up in, but it was traumatic. My parents were in the middle of a long and bitter divorce when my mother died, and so Dad inherited everything as spouse, but some people were bitter, as was he. He thought my mother’s relatives might try to obtain custody of us, so we weren’t allowed to talk to the neighbors, who were their friends.

Moving is trauma, but life was also stressful at school. My sophomore year I had teachers whom I truly loved – the late, great John Hughes, who took things I wrote for class and typed them up and submitted them to the literary magazine without telling me, Carl Perkins who, at a time when I thought I was stupid, fat, and ugly, took the time to tell me in words and in writing that I wasn’t dumb. “This grade reflects your level of preparation rather than your intelligence,” he wrote on an exam I flunked, and gave me a 56-page assignment to do over Christmas break for extra credit. The assignment started with the earlier problems which I had somehow mastered and took me through what I hadn’t understood, leading into the things we would learn next, so when classes resumed, all of a sudden, I was good in math and ahead of the class. I had just started my job in the kitchen with Ila Moore, and I had finally figured out how to separate Latin and Spanish in my brain.

But Junior year was just much harder. I was keenly aware that my brother and my friends from his class would only be with us for nine more months, now for eight, soon for seven, and I had begun mourning them. I loved U. S. History with the headmaster and hated it with his co-teacher, who was equally thrilled with me. In those days I divided adults into those who liked my brother better and those who liked me better, and my English teacher fell into the second camp. She looked like Mary Steenburgen and had no interest in me writing poems or stories, only essays about how the change in the narrative language reflected the characters; worse, while sometimes she called the language used “elevated,” sometimes she called it “high falluten,” which I could only hear so many times before rolling my eyes. My glasses were not thick enough to hide this. The teacher was not bad, she had a task to do and did it well, but this year I was being taught; the previous year I was nurtured.

And so, I was wounded, And I walked like it. One day after lunch, I had a free period before English, and She was neither evil nor a bad teacher, she just wasn’t for me. planned to go to the library on the second floor. But I looked at the stairs and knew I could not climb them. A sudden urgency came upon me, and I dashed to the nearby ladies’ room and threw up, mercifully in the toilet. My English teacher had been about to say something when I bolted and instead as I emerged, she was reassuring and kind. Someone got my coat and my books, the office called Mom, and I sat on the couch in the lobby watching life take place without me, teachers and students walking by and looking at me with empathetic curiosity. The headmaster and several teachers stopped by to say kind things and tuck my coat around me. Mom took me home and I slept and shivered, vomited and slept, burned and then shivered, for the better part of two days.

My brothers and baby sister were kept away so I wouldn’t infect them. Mom read, Dad came with facecloths, there was flat ginger ale and the promise of boiled rice if I could hold that down, but nothing made me feel better. Worse, I was throwing up yellow bile, something I had never done before. I was too tired to be scared, but my parents were not. Dad tried to appear nonchalant. “Everyone feels better after a good puke,” he said. But I did not.

Sunday, though, was better. I stayed home, but people prayed for me at church and sent home greetings. My siblings lit candles, and soon it was time for, and piano lessons with my godfather. He came to our house each Sunday for this. Obviously, I wouldn’t have a lesson that day, but Sergei Yulievich came to my room and made the sign of the Cross over me many times. His wife, Madeleine, was French, and we often talked during my brothers’ piano lessons. I told her all my secrets, and whenever I was suffering, she said, “Poorrr Aanne! Poorrr Aanne!” in her beautiful accent. My brothers would say this to tease me when I complained about something at home. But this day, Madeleine came to the rescue.

The Cure

While Serge was upstairs, down in the kitchen Madeleine asked Mom about my illness. Mom explained all the highlights, and Madeleine said, “But I know how to cure this!”

Madeleine often spoke about what they used “during the war,” by which she meant World War II, and would tell us about using beer instead of eggs and how they stretched out rations. “During the war, we did not have doctors, but we did not need them for this, we knew what to do,” she said, and set Mom to gathering things for her.

Madeleine, who was usually so precise in the way she peeled, sliced, and seasoned vegetables, took only carrots, celery, and an onion. She merely washed the vegetables, and peeled only the onion. She cut the vegetables into large chunks and boiled them in a great deal of water without herbs or oil or even salt.

She told Mom, “The first day, she is to drink just the broth, with no salt. The second day, she may have the broth with some of the vegetables chopped up, but not too much. The third day, she can eat the vegetables, with a little salt, and by then, she should be hungry again.

Mom told me the story as she brought me the broth. At first, she had to feed it to me, but then I could feed myself. When it stayed down, I felt like a miracle had taken place. I was able to sit up, and have a sponge bath, and change into a cleaner nightgown.

The next day, the broth with a few mashed veggies stayed down, and by the time I could eat the bland vegetables, I was able to think about the classes I was missing and the wonderful foods cooking downstairs that suddenly smelled good. I wanted to join the living. I wanted to go back to my life.

And, my life was better. There had been kindness and mercy, carrots and celery, prayers and stories. I had been put back together by the love of others.

My friend’s book

When my friend Matushka Elizabeth, also known as the author Melissa Naasko, was writing a book on healing foods, I meant to share the story and the recipe, but then life became too busy. But when “Hospitality for Healing” came out, I was sure to buy a copy. It’s a wonderful book, full of recipes not just for people with the stomach bug but for long term conditions that require thoughtful preparation of food. She has ways of thickening foods so they are easy to swallow, recipes for syrups and soups, things that you can put in Jell-O and thing that you cannot, and more. Her soup recipes have emboldened me to now put three or more garlic in my soups, three or more instead of my very Celtic one clove.

The book isn’t just recipes, it’s also about how to show up, how to heal, how to help. I highly recommend it.

The prompt

Take the reader through an illness and the way that it is or isn’t healed, using details — colors, textures, remedies and the people who offer them. If you need help getting started, read what others have done and take from it what helps you.

Examples

In children’s literature, Sharon Creech’s book “Granny Torelli Makes Soup,” a grandmother heals a rift between two children through her stories as they come together to make soup.

In “Little Women” there are numerous examples of the girls nursing each other or neighbors through the things that they cook and prepare.

In poetry, Randall Jarell’s “The Sick Child” captures what it is like to be sick and yearn for something without knowing quite what.

In nonfiction, Da Chen writes of the way friends banded together to heal him when he was bleeding internally at college in “Sounds of the River.”

In fiction, Dickens captures the confusion of Pip’s illness in “Great Expectations.”

Zooey’s lecture to Franny about “consecrated chicken soup” in Salinger’s “Franny and Zoey” is a must read.

Dostoevsky is the master of capturing illness and its fallout; Ivan’s fever in “The Brothers Karamazov” leads to the Grand Inquisitor dream.

Resources

The online magazine, “Survivor’s Review,” while itself about cancer, is an excellent starting place for writing more about illness, whether your own or someone else’s.

They have both prompts and a list of resources.

Gratefully, Slowly Healing

Thank you for your prayers. I had never had surgery before. The doctors are pleased with my rate of healing. The best surprise was that they took the skin for my nose from my shoulder, and not my forehead. It is a huge relief. I still have to keep my nose covered and clean. It took two office visits (my MOHS surgeon worked from eight in the morning till 5:30 at night, after the office closed) and an overnight hospital stay. But I am home, and happy to be here. My plastic surgeon had several young interns observe and even work on me, and the propriatery interest they took after in my stitches was touching. I have rules for four to six weeks:

  1. No CPAP machine. The pressure would crush my nose.
  2. No lying down, not even to sleep.
  3. No lifting anything more than five pounds.
  4. No bending over.
  5. No bowing my head. In the Liturgy, when they say, “Let us bow our heads unto the Lord,” all I can do is meekly lower my eyes.
  6. No blowing my nose.
  7. No scratching.
  8. But if I have to sneeze, I have to hold onto my nose with both hands.

My youngest is getting married soon and I will not be completely healed for the wedding. I am still applying ointment, xerofoam, and gauze. The thread from the xerofoam gets in my eyes and tickles my nostrils. The bandages get soaked if I drink my water or coffee without a straw. And the bandages slip off, causing me to flash people with my healing skin at coffee hour. Not a look.

That said, the doctor is very, very happy. At my first visit, I just thought my nose we congested. I wasn’t allowed to explore. But the doctor had me flip my head back and with plyers and tweezers he extracted something. He was so happy and I was so shocked that I wrote a poem:

The doctor thrust the tweezers
into my nostrils,
from which my departed uncles
had, in my youth,
removed quarters,
to my amazement.

This one, though,
surprised me more.
unfolding splint
after splint
with a flourish of his wrist.

He smiled wide and laughed, 
as had my uncles.
"Bet you didn't know
that THESE were up there," he said.

It explains
just
so much.

My husband tells me that my profile has changed, and he is correct. I have Michael Jackson’s nose from the 1960’s, sort of flat and wide. In another year they can do more surgery. But for now I just want to heal.

I am not taking most of my vitamins or herbal supplements because they might make me bleed more, and even had to dump a cup of willow bark tea because I can’t have asprin, which comes from willow bark.

Friends have spoiled us, sending or bringing me soup, a healthy dinner with zuccinni noodles, and locally sourced eggs from their own chickens. I am grateful.

But I am tired. All I can think of are first lines, not whole poems.

I am amazed at people’s kindness. I have received wooden roses, so I don’t have to water them. Three different monasteries are praying for us. My husband has gone shopping with me, his least favorite thing to do in this life, so I don’t have to lift things. And he has accepted this task with joy and patience which are contagious.

After all, we didn’t cut off my nose to spite my face. We cut off parts to save me. And it’s a miracle. I used to have cancer all over my face and not even know it. Then I knew it but still had it. And now, God has gifted doctors to be able to remove the cancer and restore my face. That is a miracle. It’s worth four more weeks of caution.

Glory be to God for all things.