The Kitchen Table

During the years when I was growing up at 30 Green Street, a young couple, Bill and Alice, lived diagonally across the street from us.  When I was in elementary school, I walked their cocker spaniel, Suzie, and when I got old enough, I answered their business phone when they went out to dinner.  I was their children’s first babysitter.  They held my wedding reception in their home. And on an almost daily basis, they had coffee at my parents’ kitchen table.

This was the way of life in the neighborhood where I was raised.  Neighbors spent almost as much time at each other’s homes as they did their own.  Everybody used the back door, and rarely rang a doorbell.  Instead, we gave a quick knock, cautiously opened the door and called, “Anybody home?”

In my neighborhood, we held impromptu pot luck dinners, pooling our salad, pasta and sauce, carrying chairs to each other’s homes to cram around the table.  We cooked out and played no-rules croquet games in each other’s yards during the summer.  We shoveled each other’s sidewalks during the winter.  When someone’s car broke down, men rolled up their sleeves to make repairs.  When someone died, women delivered casseroles and comfort.

At my parents’ house at 30 Green Street the coffee was hot and plentiful and everyone was welcome for a cup and a chat.  It always amazed me that people flocked to our old house. Its old plaster walls were riddled with crumbling holes and peeling wallpaper.  The furniture was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs.  The rugs were faded and threadbare.  And the kitchen table- the altar around which all people gathered- was rickety and small, with warped extenders that wouldn’t stay open unless a matchbook was wedged between the leaf and the support that held it up.

It was at the kitchen table that I struggled with algebra, kneaded bread, and learned to sew on buttons.  At the table I gave haircuts to my brothers and taught my sisters how to apply makeup.  At the end of the summer, my mother and I would can tomatoes from her garden, lining dozens of Ball jars on the kitchen table and listening for the lids to pop as they cooled.

I think my parents’ guiding belief was “if you brew it, they will come,” because our kitchen table was always surrounded by people sipping coffee.  On Saturday mornings, the lady who delivered eggs stopped for a quick cup and to update my parents on how the chickens were laying.  Tuesdays, Ernie the dry cleaner hung the clean wool suits in front of the cellar door and had a few slurps before trotting back to his truck.  Young mothers spooned sugar into their cups as they asked for my mother’s advice on potty training and temper tantrums.   Elderly neighbors sipped and shared small town gossip. The insurance man always drank two cups.  Father Kennedy, our priest from St. Patrick’s, usually had one.

One evening when I was nine, my father sat at the kitchen table with a man from the car dealership where he worked.  I had been sent to bed and was dawdling in the bathroom when I heard their voices through the metal grate between the bathroom floor and the kitchen below.  I got down on my knees to listen more closely and could see their steaming cups of coffee on the kitchen table.  The visitor’s voice cracked with emotion as he told Dad how sad he was since the death of his father.  My father’s voice was low and gentle, and reassuring.  I don’t remember the words he said, but I remember going to bed that night proud that my father was someone who could give solace to a broken heart.

If the kitchen table was the mecca for conversation, coffee was the vehicle by which it was served. When I was very young, my father would pour his own coffee, and then pour a small amount into my cup and fill the rest with milk. He would stir in a spoonful of sugar and we would sit and talk.  He did this with all of his children, encouraging us to share our opinions about school, sports and politics.  At the kitchen table there was no rank. Everyone’s ideas were welcome. Everyone had equal value.

The kitchen table was Switzerland- a place on neutral ground over which family arguments were solved. At the table, broken hearts were soothed and tears were dried.  At the table, my parents lectured me about my grades, my boyfriends, and my lapses in judgment.  One Sunday morning during my teen years, I sat at the kitchen table nursing a headache left by too much wine and not enough sleep.  My father entered the door, carrying a wine bottle I had hidden under the front steps and sternly declared, “Three o’clock in the morning is too late, and don’t ever leave your trash lying around like that again.”  Then he poured me a cup of coffee.  I never made either mistake again.

Last week I received word that Bill had passed on.  Sunday there will be a memorial service for him and I will again return to my old neighborhood.  I will hug his children and share their tears, because although we are adults, we are orphans.

And after the food and the embraces and the tears, I will walk very quietly by the house at 30 Green Street, because I am sure if I listen closely, I will hear laughter from the kitchen table.

Advertisements

House Plants and Friendship

House plants are needy little things.  You can water them and fertilize them, and pick off the dead leaves and they’ll flourish.  However, if you leave them untended for too long, the leaves go dry, the stems wilt, and pretty soon, all you have is a dish full of dirt.  I should know.  I have the black thumb of all time.

When I was in college, a friend gave me a miniature cactus.  I put it under my desk light and every once in a while threw a glass of water on it.  It seemed to be fine, but one night as I was writing a paper on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the cactus suddenly gave a pitiful sigh and plopped to its side, falling out of its bowl and onto the desk, roots exposed, and dead as dead could be.

Since that day, I have noticed that most people have several houseplants, and can keep them alive.  My sister Martha-Jean has so many, it takes her an afternoon to water all of them.  They sit on windowsills and bookcases, filling her home with curling vines of emerald and chartreuse filigree.  Not so for me.  Houseplants that enter my home begin as verdant leaves and yellow buds sprouting from a bed of moss.  Within a week, shiny jade leaves acquire an ashen death pallor, and soon turn brown.   Stems bend and crack, and blossoms litter the tablecloth until at last the plant meets its demise.

Friendships are a lot like houseplants.  They require nurturing in order to stay alive.  Some need a great deal of maintenance and others only a kiss and a promise every now and then.  But all need some degree of attention.

I thought about this when my friend Sue called a couple of weeks ago.  She and I met when I was pregnant with my son Gabriel, and after he was born, we’d chat in the church nursery while her Ben and my Abby played at our feet.   During her next pregnancy, she was put on bed rest, and I, a stay-at-home mom, made daily phone calls to check up on her and keep her company.   This was a fairly easy accomplishment, as we lived in a three room apartment that was so small, my phone cord reached from one end to the other.  While Abby and Gabe played in their bedroom, I would dust, do dishes and tidy the rest of the apartment while Sue and I chatted.  We talked about everything- children, marriage, sewing projects and recipes.  We shared a love for God and family, and our conversations were peppered with laughter and encouragement.  By the time her baby Joshua was born, we had cemented a life long friendship.

Sue and I spent the next several years as frequent companions.  Together we re-upolstered my kitchen chairs, canned applesauce, and sewed clothing for our kids.  We babysat each other’s children, team taught Sunday School classes and on hot summer days piled all of our kids into one car to spend a day at the beach.  Our children were almost like siblings, and we were as close as any sisters could be.

The two of us weathered life’s trials-her complicated pregnancies, my complicated marriage.  Her transition to a new part of the country, my transition to a single woman.  Bound by prayer and phone lines, we battled cancer, heart attacks, economic strife, birth and death.  We celebrated graduations and promotions.  We laughed over our kids’ antics and cried over their heartbreaks.  She has taught me much- acceptance, hospitality, forgiveness, patience- all with gentle nudges and encouraging smiles.

When Sue and her husband moved to North Carolina, I thought my heart would break.  But true friendships weather the storm of distance, and every now and then we will share a cup of coffee over a long phone call, catching up on each other’s lives, celebrating successes, praying together over concerns.  Our friendship is like a low maintenance houseplant.

But even low maintenance needs some maintenance, and this week, while Sue was in New Hampshire for the holidays, we were able to steal a couple of hours for face-to-face catch up.  We drove to a small cafe for breakfast and chatter.  The quiche was dry.  The coffee tasted burned.  But the time with my forever friend was absolutely delicious.

How easy, I thought, it is to let friendships fade, like houseplants tucked away in a forgotten corner.  This is a friendship that deserves more than a splash of water and a promise of a new pot for it’s stretching roots.  This friendship needs to be nurtured- dust wiped from its leaves, fresh soil to encourage new growth, sunlight to turn brown to beryl.   This is a friendship to be treasured, for Sue, a woman whose grace and beauty has touched more lives than she’ll ever know, deserves to be treasured.

So plans have been sketched out for a long weekend at the beach this spring where there is time to catch up, time to rehash and time to plan ahead.  We will tend to the garden we have planted together.  A garden of friendship.  And who knows what will come next?  Perhaps I’ll even learn to keep an African violet alive.

The Toppling of the Towers

I play computer Solitaire.  A lot.  It started when I discovered it as a free game on our first family home computer, and it grew into an obsession.  I play at rocket speed, timing myself to see how quickly I can sort the cards until they are organized into neat piles.

You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to figure this out.  I hate chaos and disorder.  I detest clutter.  And I have formed a pattern of coping with problems alone.  It began when I was a young woman in an unhealthy relationship.  Grey clouds would gather, the air would thicken, and rumblings would be heard from a distance.  Slowly, deliberately, the sky darkened and large raindrops randomly splashed against the pavement, and then, little by little, they quickened.  Soon there was nothing but chaos- crashes of thunder, flashes of lightning, rain like sheets falling from billowing masses of black and gray.  When they passed, I never talked about the storms.  When the sun again emerged, I would smile, clean the debris, and act as if nothing had happened. 

I did this for years, until I could no more.  Finally, I began a new chapter of my life and on a different computer, learned a new version of the Solitaire game.   This version was harder, requiring much strategy and careful maneuvering.  I lost more than I won.   Still, I sorted and organized and piled the cards into neat harmonious groups.  It was systematic.  Orderly.  Tidy.  But a few weeks ago, after I successfully finished a game, I realized that once the piles are completely sorted they topple, crashing to the ground where they shatter into small bits and shards.

I have thought about this a lot. From the moment we are born, we crave the company others.  Babies know this. We can feed them and change them and wrap them in the finest of blankets, but sometimes they cry because they just need to be held.  They nestle into our arms and snuggle their heads into the crook of our necks.  When they get scared, they run to their parents, holding up chubby little hands to be lifted to the safety of a daddy’s shoulder or a mother’s lap. 

Animals know this. They herd together for warmth and safety.  Elephants form protective circles around an injured or weak family member.  Puppies and kittens lie so closely when nursing from their mother that it is hard to tell one from another.  Ants move in armies, relying on the strength of the group to bear a load that greatly outweighs each soldier.  Horses bay and whinny when one is removed from the other’s eyesight.  Sheep move as one when lead from the pasture to the fold.

This lesson has never been so obvious as it has during the past month.  My mother, the hub of the mighty wheel of my family, has become ill.  The knowledge that she will not be with us for long emerged from a vague distant fog and has become glaring and stark.  She has always been there, soft and warm, with strong arms that pull us close to her breast.  She has taught me how to live, how to laugh, how to love. Imagining life without her leaves me with flowing eyes, and a lump in my throat that cannot be swallowed.  I want to run from this, to hide in my game of Solitaire.  To sort and order and make neat piles. 

But as I watched the cards topple from their towers, I remembered that life was never meant to be a game of Solitaire.  A different strategy is needed.  Instead, I reached out to my siblings, my children, my nieces and nephews, my cousins, my friends.   We did not sort ourselves. We did not pile into congruent towers of like suits. Instead, we formed a circle.  And here we stay.  We stand together, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other’s weight, wiping each other’s tears, bearing each other’s burdens.  In the circle, there are no towers to tumble, no crashing of cards to shatter on the floor.  Towers fall when they are stacked too high. Circles widen to embrace new members. 

I will always try to sort my life into neat, orderly piles.  And I will always live my life with a healthy sense of independence.  But in the days ahead, Solitaire will be played on my computer.  Life is a team game, to be shared with the people I love.  If you look, you’ll find an opening in the circle.  Come on in.

Catch a Falling Star

This morning, my friend Gerry sent me a testimony he wrote about a dear friend who suddenly passed away.   Through the email I could sense the sting that he is feeling- the kind of shock that sends you reeling and leaves you disoriented and confused.   I remembered that same feeling one evening when I opened a letter from my sister.  When I tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor.  I picked it up, expecting to read some cheery news about one of my nephews.  Instead, I found the obituary for my closest childhood friend.

The winter I was in first grade, I moved from the parochial school in nearby Three Rivers, to the public school in my home town. This was done because I spent the first half of the year standing in the corner, rapping my own knuckles with a ruler as penance for horrible sins only a six-year-old can commit, such as spelling my name wrong, or arriving past the second bell when the bus was late.  The months between that September and December were filled with fearful tears and the few memories I have of those days are shrouded in lonely darkness. 

First grade in public school was very different from St. Anne’s.  The classrooms were bright and sunny. My teacher was Mrs. Cassidy, a petite lady who wore flowered dresses and corrected me with a gentle smile. At St. Anne’s, I had been taught to write in cursive, using the Palmer method.  Mrs. Cassidy showed me how to print rounded letters between the wide lines on special penmanship paper.  It was fun, like artwork, and when I was finished, I decorated the margins with small sketches of puppies and tulips. How Sr. Lucien would have cringed!   Under Mrs. Cassidy’s guidance, I learned to add and subtract, to read and to sing songs about April showers and the grand old flag.  My Monday morning stomach aches were replaced by enthusiasm, and I finally relaxed enough to begin making friends with some of the other children.

One of those children was Linda.  She was delicate and blonde and reminded me of a spring lamb.  She wore a red and black cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and fringed shirt to school, and her lunch box was shaped like a barn. Linda invited me to her sixth birthday party and on a beautiful May afternoon, I gathered at her house with other little girls in pastel dresses to eat cake and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”  I still remember my party favor- a string of amber beads to wear around my neck. They were translucent and glistened in the sunlight and to me they were as precious as diamonds.  But more precious was my friendship with Linda.

Despite her fragile stature, Linda was daring and adventurous.  She and I would spend overnights at her house, rise early in the morning and armed with chocolate covered graham crackers,  explore the woods behind her house.  We swam in the icy waters of her brook during the summers and slid down her snow covered hill in the winter. We sang songs to each other over walkie-talkies, earned 4-H badges by planting Mother’s Day seeds in paper cups and shot BBs at each other’s feet.  As teenagers, we rode a motor scooter through nearby pastures, daringly cutting the headlight in the dark, as if to look danger in the eye and tempt fate in a wicked game of roulette.  We whispered about boys and borrowed each other’s clothes, and smoked cigarettes in the school bathrooms.  And through the years, we watched the clear night skies for shooting stars.

After high school I went away to college.  Linda did not.  Our paths didn’t cross again until many years later, when I was in the early months of my first pregnancy.  She arrived at my house, her baby boy- Micah- happily packed on her back.  He reminded me of her as a child with his elfin eyes and wispy blond hair.  We excitedly caught up on each other’s lives and went for a walk. When we returned, I started to bleed and within a few days, the baby was gone and I was left in a quiet house with empty arms.  Buried in my own grief, I mourned for weeks.  Months turned to years, and somehow, Linda and I lost touch, never to see each other again.

Linda’s memorial service was much like she was- free, open and non-traditional.  Her friends and family spoke fondly of her sense of adventure and her zeal for life.  We all agreed our lives were brighter and happier for having known her and then with a tear and a hug, we went again in our separate ways.   I will always carry the regret of not being there while she was sick, of not standing with her in the dark days, of not saying goodbye.

People’s lives are much like the shooting stars Linda and I sought.  Some do a long, slow swan dive, leaving trails of red fire so bright that we can still see them long after their lights have burned out.  Others, like Linda, dance so quickly across the night sky that if we look away for an instant we’ll miss them.

Life is short.  Take a little time, look up a falling star and say hello, before it’s too late.

Old Friend, New Friend

A few months ago, I reconnected with an old friend from college.  Gerry was an old boyfriend’s roommate.  As is often the case in college, we became good friends, simply by association.  We took several classes together, played guitar and sang late into the evenings, sat together in dining halls, and drank beer in the campus bar.

Gerry was fun to be with.  Prone to contemplation, he would give long soliloquies about simple concepts, sparking endless discussions about subjects like the value of plastic beer cups or the profundity of the lyrics of an advertisement jingle.   The bizarre nature of the topics paired with his perpetually impish grin often made me wonder if he were indeed serious, or if the entire exercise was a ruse, meant only to see how far he could engage me in much ado about nothing.

He loved Todd Rundgren’s music.  I remember watching him practice the same guitar riff over and over until his rendition was as clean and exact as the record album.  He drank beer while he cooked eggs for Sunday breakfast- a recipe that to this day still makes me gag.  It was his idea to ditch class one afternoon and instead, convinced me to tour the Narragansett brewery in Coventry, Rhode Island.  He gave me a red plastic Mr. Peanut cup for Christmas – an item I kept filled with spare change until it disappeared to that mysterious place where broken toys, jewelry and sports memorabilia make their final resting place.

We re-found each other through a mutual friend and have been emailing ever since.  Gerry has lived a remarkable life.  I know this only by the small references hidden within the sentences of his emails.  He never boasts, but I know he is an accomplished guitarist and vocalist, who has performed with a litany of amazing musicians. 

Gerry’s kindness permeates his emails.  His sentences are punctuated with a sweetness that that brings light into the room and a smile to my lips.  His emails are well crafted, with words carefully chosen and lyrical sentences that read like musical stanzas.  He tells me about living for a time in the Southwest, of traveling by motorcycle, that he still plays hockey, about the joys of raising his two sons, and that he loves his wife.   Through those small admissions, much is revealed about who he is.

He tells me that he learned from me how to hear and sing harmonies, and that he passed that knowledge on to other musicians who struggled to learn this skill.  He doesn’t know it, but this information is balm to a tender spot in my soul- a scar left by a sense of failure and lack of accomplishment.  How often do we get to hear that something we did left lasting impact on someone’s life, and created a ripple in the continuum of time?  To me, this is no small thing.  It gives meaning to my life.  It reminds me that I have purpose- that I have left a small mark on this big planet.

One of the nicest things about reacquainting with old friends is that although many things change, the essence of the person does not.  We are older, grayer, wider, slower.  We are balding, arthritic and scarred.  But the Gerry I knew when we were twenty is the same Gerry who fills the blank spaces of our virtual stationary.  He is kind, sweet and oh, how he makes me laugh.  I’m glad I knew him then.  I’m more glad I know him now.

Friends

 I had the pleasure of reconnecting with my friend Mary today. We sang together in pubs and coffee houses during college during the 70s.  She was my suite mate- my first encounter after my father kissed me goodbye and left me standing alone in a barren dorm room.  While her mother sprayed everything in sight with Lysol, she introduced herself.  She had a warm smile and sparkling blue eyes.  She played guitar and she sang like an angel.  My harmonies blended with her melodies and our friendship was sealed forever.

 

Somehow, we lost touch after graduation.  Husbands, kids, jobs, dogs… the excuses were louder than the bidding to keep the friendship alive. Our paths briefly crossed once and then again diverged.  Another eight years passed and suddenly, there she was, a face on a website.  The same sparkling eyes. The same warm smile.

 

Emails ensued and the reunion planned.  I was terrified.  My voice has lost its elasticity, and my singing is now confined to the privacy of my car.  My once willowy frame now bulges from the ravages of pregnancy, childbirth, and too many cookies.  I have few credentials to boast- a salaried job, a sunny apartment, a blue sedan that bears the scars of teenagers learning to drive, a broken marriage.

 

But then, there she was, striding down the hall to my open door. With one embrace, thirty years disappeared and we were eighteen again.  We spent a delightful day, not talking about what we do, but sharing who we are. 

 

Friends don’t read your resume.  They don’t notice your gray hair.  They don’t care if the carpet is stained or the back seat of the car is covered with dog hairs.  Friends cup your chin when the water is rising over your head. They hold you tight when the storms of life blow so hard you think you cannot stay on your feet a moment longer.  They bring salve for your wounds, a blanket for the cold and a candle to carry you through until dawn.  They encourage you to forge forward, to redefine your life, to remember the things that are good. 

 

Welcome back, Mare. I’ve missed you.

 

%d bloggers like this: