The Part I Can Do

I am sorry to have been so silent for so long, both for the offense and for the cause. My sister-in-law, Janet, died on January 10, after a three year battle with cancer about which she was very, very private. And I tried writing about her, but it just plain hurt too much. Also, I want to respect her privacy. But I’ve been thinking.

I don’t recall breathing at all, for the first seven pages, when I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, at the urging of my second MFA mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman.  Gornick describes a eulogy given for one female doctor by a younger colleague that let all the mourners grasp who this doctor was, what she meant to her colleague, and what the world will now miss in the absence of this woman. I wanted to write something like that about my sister-in-law, but I cannot. First, the pain is too raw and too strong (the astute reader will notice that I have posted nothing yet this entire year). Secondly, she was an intensely private person, and I don’t know how far I can go before I step into the realm of what Aslan calls, in the Narnia Chronicles, “someone else’s story.” And thirdly, my brother-in-law Mark, a far more accomplished writer than I, has already written the definitive piece.  But here’s the thing that I can do: I can write about the place she sent me to shop. Think of it as an exercise in metonymy. Or think of it as all I can stand to do.

I can’t write about Jan on the whole, about Jan and her sense of humor, and all her common sense. I can’t write about her telling me about Florence Foster Jenkins and sharing our love of PDQ Bach. I cannot write about how she came to be with me in the hospital when I was in labor and my husband had to be in church, or about her ability to cook around anyone’s allergies, or her ability to fix and create, to mend and adapt, to welcome and assist. I can just barely write about one small recommendation that she made.  But I think, with God’s help, I can pull it together to write about Friendswood, Texas and “The Shepherd’s Nook.

When my husband and I moved to Texas in 1989 with our two toddlers and 39 boxes of books, Mark and Jan had already lived in Friendswood, a Houston suburb, a number of years. They were high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, and moved down so Mark could work on NASA projects after college. I met my husband, who was already an astrophysicist, when he was in seminary and I was in high school. We waited till I graduated from Wellesley to get married, and were living in my native Boston when the Houston parish needed a priest. “I thought because Father has a brother down there, it would be easier for you,” said the bishop who asked me to move a thousand and a half miles from my five siblings, thirty-four cousins, my almae matres and home parish.

So, we went.

Jan oriented me. “Up North, if you have cockroaches, it means you’re a bad housekeeper. In Texas, if you have cockroaches, it means you live in Texas. But hire a bug service, so whatever drops from the ceiling vent is dead.” She showed me where to shop and what to wear, shared her friends through the quilt group and taught me how to make a strip quilt. She guided me toward the best Mother’s Day Out program for her son and my daughter, who are less than a month apart in age, and shared the driving, especially when I had morning sickness. And around the end of  January,  she warned me about February.

“In February, the rodeo comes to Houston,” she said, “and the excitement is everywhere. The events are on the news every night. The cashiers at Kroger dress up in cowboy clothes. And the schools have something they call ‘Go Texas Day.’ They eat franks and beans from tin pie plates at school, so you’ll need to start saving them now to send in. They learn about roping horses and riding. And you’ll get a note that says they can wear their cowboy clothes to school. Now I know, I know, you don’t have any cowboy clothes now. Believe me, you will by the time they are all in school. You don’t have to go out and buy anything new. Around this time of year, they start displaying them at thrift stores, like The Shepherd’s Nook.

“I will take you there. It’s wonderful. It’s an old house that someone donated to the church, and they think of it as a ministry twice, to sell things for not so much money to the poor and then to use the money to help people. And they have everything, divided into rooms. They’re only open three days a week, so you have to catch them when they’re ready for you.”

The next week we loaded all the children into cars and took them to The Nook. We pulled into an unpaved driveway covered with gravel and walked into…. a little blue house.

The front room had the nice things, which is only fitting, for the parlor. Baby things were off to the left. A room full of men’s clothing was at the front bedroom, after which was a bathroom and two bedrooms facing each other, one for boys and one for girls. In the back of the house was the pay dirt — women’s clothes, household items, books, games, and tools.

We came home with cowboy boots and hats for everyone, after which Lardas Boy Child Outdoor Outfit became a diaper, boots (to fend off fire ants), and a cowboy hat. At two, they had to wear underpants, and at three, I made them wear something over the underpants.

I had a whole house to furnish and equip. But I also had another way of life to learn. And so I often went to the Nook for cookbooks and dishes, linens and pillows. I saw things from America’s bicentennial and Texas’ sesquicentennial, both of which happened before my time there but still loomed large. The grocery stores still sold (and still sell) the Texas shaped pasta that were created for the latter event, and red white and blue were everywhere anyway, not so much from the bicentennial as because it was Texas.

We had more children, and all four of them grew. My husband was priest and engineer, and there were lean times in each field. But when someone ripped their pants or outgrew their sneakers, I knew I could find what they needed at the Nook. More than that, I found fabric and yarn, toys and utensils. I bought cookbooks from local church fundraisers, and learned to cook like the neighbors. And I bought all of us books.

All my children were avid readers, and the women who staffed the Nook appreciated that. Local retired engineers and teachers donated their libraries, so I found gifts for my husband and stacks of books for the children. I found things donated by kindred spirits, copies of books of poetry that I’d lost in the move or which the kids had ruined. I was part shopper and part archeologist, learning about this new place from its artifacts. The farm stand down the street a block sold similar things, along with local produce and gorgeous plants, and became my second stop on the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the Nook was open.

Sometimes Jan came with me, and helped me develop my taste. She explained why one thing would be uncomfortable to wear and another would have to be dry cleaned. We would raise our eyebrows but not giggle at some of the color combinations of afghans from the sixties and seventies that people donated from their grandmother’s estates, but, I also bought some of these and tucked my children in under them. We’d talk about recipes and kids, what to plant and how to cook it when harvested. Time spent in her kitchen or living room, with kids everywhere asking questions or seeking justice, with Jan telling me her stories from Michigan and me adding mine from Boston, was formative and healing. I was so homesick that I would listen to “Car Talk” on NPR for the accents as I drove down planned roads past cattle, palm trees, and oil rigs. But at Jan’s and at the Nook, I felt like I was in the home of family.

 

This past Ascension Thursday, my youngest son and I landed in Houston, his first visit since we moved when he was five. Now 23, and an environmental engineer, he made acute observations. “Mom, there’s no place for the water to go when it rains here! Why would anyone build a city on a swamp?” And, as we passed a retention ditch, “Mom, water is just never supposed to be that color.”

We were there for the wedding of the youngest daughter in a family of friends that we knew through Jan. She and my son spent many hours together, each the baby of a large family, and they stayed in touch through letters and Facebook. They shared a love of God, theology, bad puns, and our families and friends. The groom even looked like my son. We were there to celebrate. We were there for the wedding. And we were there to see Jan before the cancer took her all. John stayed with the groomsmen at the bride’s house (she and the bridesmaids were at her sister’s home) and I stayed with Mark and Jan, so I had a rental car.

Jan had lost weight from the cancer, and her luxurious  long black hair was replaced with a thick shock of greyer hair that still looked healthy and stylish. She did not have a lot of energy, but she insisted on doing the dishes herself, and cooked us a casserole and gave me the recipe as she gave me pointers on beating diabetes. She gave me tricks for living with my difficult medicines, and described how she overcame the need for it through diet.

We all understood that she was dying. She had surgery and chemo, radiation and immunotherapy, and each thing worked until it didn’t. I had been de-cluttering our house in preparation for downsizing, and our mutual friends had been helping her do the same, finding homes for her late mother’s doll-making things and for Jan’s fabrics and notions.

I think that part of being a good guest is to give the family chunks of time without you. Mark had to work, and Jan had to sleep. I was to drive a guest to the wedding, and I went out to learn the route to her place, the wedding site, and the reception site in advance, so I wouldn’t get lost on the big day.

I also took a side trip.

I drove past our old neighborhood in Webster, Texas; I drove to our old house (but didn’t leave the car), past the children’s school, and off to Friendswood. The stores had all changed names and places, the library was now in the old bank building, but the Shepherd’s Nook was still there. I pulled into the driveway with a familiar crunch, and opened the door to find the store was ever the same.

I walked through the rooms with nostalgia and appreciation, stopping to choose a gift for my friend’s granddaughter and a dress for my own. I chose some books for the flight home. I wandered past shoes and boots, hats and negligees, silver trays from someone’s 25th anniversary and balls of yarn, marveling at the continuing kindness of strangers. Before I came, after I left, and surely after I came home, these volunteers collected, sorted, and displayed donations, told which color looked best on you and set aside good books for someone’s kid, folded and re-hung the things people had tried on so the shop would be orderly and the customers would have dignity as they looked for what they needed, and what, thanks to these kind people, they could afford.

It was with heightened gratitude for what was and what is that I went to the wedding, to my brother-in-law’s book signing, to our old parish downtown for Saturday vigil and to my in-laws’ Greek church for Liturgy on Sunday. When I got to sit around Monday with Jan and a friend and talk about nothing important — jury duty and road tests, licenses and quilting — I valued each second. Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated.

My life in Connecticut has been very different from our life in Texas, because suddenly I was the mother of teenagers rather than toddlers. We live in a town rather like Friendswood, though, full of churches determined to help people. The Episcopalian church in town even had a house turned resale shop, “The Golden Rooster,” until three years ago. And I bought nice silk scarves, a stunning jacket, and some kicky earrings there.

But the days of toddlers who outgrew their clothes, elementary students in need of toys and books, middle school students who needed new khakis for their changing bodies, and a baby who was happy with anything he could chew on are over. I miss those days. I miss our friends. I miss the little blue house of a store that provided for them so well for so long. I miss the straight roads, and the cows, the sunlight and the sky that stretched over them all.

And I miss my sister-in-law.

 

 

 

 

Gifts, Large and Small

Today I am grateful for the gift of not one but two pumpkins.

A friend who comes to church with me asked me if I use pumpkin. I said yes, I use it my vegan beer brownies* and in cakes, in soups and in pies and as a side dish. She pointed to two pumpkins used in her landscaping and asked if I wanted them when she was ready to change decorations.
I said yes, and expected to pick them up the next week.

However, we had a freeze warning.

(I think my friend is 4’10” and north of seventy-five years old.)

Last Sunday she told me she had the pumpkins for me in the garage, and I could get them after church. When she opened the garage door, she led me to a red wheel barrow.. She had stacked them in there; each was the size of a snowman’s base. I have no idea how she managed to lift and wheel them in. “Careful pushing that,” she said as I wheeled it toward my car, “It’s heavy!” And she gave a small smile.

She also gave me two of her aloe vera plants that she’d had in her garden all summer. One will live in the living room, the other in the kitchen.

My brave husband spared my fingers by carving up the first of the pumpkin for me into chunks, and I am cooking them slowly but surely. We had some roasted with nutmeg and butter on Tuesday, and it was delicious, we ate every spoonful. And there will be more. Some for diabetic friendly pumpkin cheesecake, some to mix into chocolate cakes, some to simmer with coconut milk into soups and some to eat like a vegetable.

Sliced pumpkin, covered with a towel, waiting to be roasted. Copyright Ann McLellan Lardas, 2017

We have reached the portion of the year where Winter wishes to overtake Fall. The leaves have turned and faded; many have fallen. The days are shorter, the darkness comes faster and remains deeper.  The only way to fight the darkness is love.

Love is, among other things, someone protecting her enormous pumpkins, for you, from the squirrels and the frost, so you can bake and share it.

I am grateful.

* Beer brownies — in a huge mixing bowl, combine two packages of dairy free brownie mix, one can of pumpkin (14 ounces, or about a cup and a half of home cooked pumpkin), and one twelve ounce bottle of cheap beer. Stir. Spread the mix into two pans according to the direction on the package and bake as directed. Vegan.

A Found Writing Prompt is a True Gift

My friend Alana was writing about experiencing synesthesia during choir rehearsal. The basses sounded like mud, or sand, another voice like caramel, another like aluminum foil. Friends asked questions about the condition, and about her perceptions. Her examples were unexpected. She gave me permission to use this line as a writing prompt:

I realized my talents when I noticed that Whitney Houston sounded like tomatoes.

While we don’t all have synesthesia, we all make odd associations. If you write nonfiction, you could examine some of yours. If you write fiction, you might use one of these strange associations to help show certain facets of a character. If you write poetry, the associations you make would be a fresh juxtaposition.

For my part, I realized that I associated perfumes with colors, in that I would coordinate my perfume with the color of the clothes I was wearing. When I wore brown, I wore Chanel Number Five. Arpege went with beige. Tea Rose Oil went with light colors, while lilac went with blue. I never questioned it until I read Alana’s post.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained these associations were for me until they were questioned. But recently I was at a graveside service for a friend’s mother, and the sun was hot. Everyone there was properly dressed, but under the canopy set up by the funeral home where we all were standing for the shade, there was a miasma of accumulated light fragrances — sweet citrus and flowery things that one spritzes on in the summer. For a moment, I was scandalized. This was, after all, a funeral. But, what did I expect? Incense. Damask rose. At the most, lavender. (Now, I myself was wearing essential oils, rose geranium, to be exact, but that was as a form of insect repellent, and, further, it worked. Or perhaps there were no bugs.)

That’s when it occurred to me that probably nobody else thought this way. Men and women who took the time to wear proper suits and sleek black dresses would not deliberately do anything untoward when they went to apply scent. To the best of my knowledge, no one had judged me for what I wore.  It would scandalize no one if I were to have applied, even, Baby Love, Wind Song, or anything that Avon sells in a sculpted glass bottle. Why was I judging them? Where did this idea come from? That is, indeed, essay fodder.

Help yourself to my prompt. What thing occurs to you that is other than normative, that mixes senses, that conflates unusual objects, and, more importantly, why? It is a point of demarcation, both in our own lives and in the lives of those whom we invent, when we realize and then question something we have always thought of as fact.

 

Speaking at the St. Herman’s Conference

I am late posting this, but my talk is up, and it is pleasant to remember winter in July! My husband and I spoke at a youth conference for Orthodox Christian teenagers and young adults, 43 of them, with seven adults. It was a very great honor. The conference was dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska, a missionary saint who came to Alaska from Russia in 1793 both to serve the Russians who lived there and to minister to the natives, many of whom became Orthodox.

While the St. Herman’s Conference has been well established on the East Coast — I met my husband at one in 1980 — the midwest St. Herman’s Conference is relatively new. I spoke at the first one in 2008, when there were closer to 20 of us, and it was a joy to see how it has grown. The diocese now has a program to encourage the youth to sing in their parishes, and several of them conducted pieces for the services we sang together.

Each conference has a theme. The purpose of this gathering was to bring people together to discuss friendship, the internet, and God. The kids came from everywhere — Chicago, Alaska, Oklahoma, Texas. They listened attentively, asked sharp questions, shared their lives and problems, and learned to sing the services together. They played in the snow on snow tubes and in a human Foosball game, volunteered for four hours at a homeless shelter, and got to know each other over all- you-can-eat fish tacos and bowling after. We ended the services at the St. Herman parish in Hastings, where our friend Fr. Michael Carney is rector.

My talk was on how to “curate” your thoughts before sharing them on the internet. I could not have given this talk before the studying I did for my MFA in Writing. I had to learn to curate my collection of thoughts and experiences, to share them in the best light and with the right juxtapositions, before I could speak to the youth about what to share and how so we can lift each other up and support each other rather than tear people down though our online participation.

The camp where the conference was held is a place of great natural beauty. The dining hall overlooked a frozen lake, and the sky above was a study in blues and greys by day, infused with orange and pink at sunrise. I had thought of Michigan winters as bleak, because I looked at the snow on the side of the road. When you stand in nature and look up, everything changes.

A bishop friend says, “Private prayer is important, but it is only in the services of the Church that we find spiritual regeneration.” And online contact is important, but it is only by meeting face to face that we truly become close. The internet helped us to organize, but of incalculable value was the face to face contact we made, forging new friendships and deepening old ones.

The world can be so cold, both physically and otherwise. It is essential that we make every effort to overcome it, banding together to share and to spread the warmth.

Finally Summer

Supper was ready, but we were not yet ready to eat.

We went for a walk to celebrate the last of the light of the almost longest day, then came across the concert on the green, first time I ever went, even though we’ve lived here seventeen years now.

The Frank Porto band was playing in the gazebo, and singing some great numbers — “Close to You,” “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” “Sweet Caroline.” We had been sitting on a bench across the street, and I put my head on his shoulder and sang the lyrics since we were too far for him to hear.

Then we crossed the street and were closer for the last few songs, ending with “YMCA,” and it was over and we sauntered toward home talking of everything and nothing. The sun was setting, and people were folding their chairs and rounding up children.

As we passed the corner he pointed out the Tree of Heaven and told me its history — tall, distinctive, invasive, pervasive — and we inhaled its scent, and I dropped my head and smiled and he lifted his and did the same, and it was night, and we were almost home.