Butter on Saltines

“Don’t judge me” I said as I mucked my way through the kitchen.  “Don’t tell me what you’re doing because I’m dying to know” replied my uber curious and impatient husband.  Taking out the box of gluten free table crackers and smearing butter across them I returned back to write this.  My grandmother, Ruth, used to love to put butter on saltine crackers, add some peanut butter sometimes, and share this with us for a snack.  Growing up next door to her, we spent a lot of time with her patience and her peculiarities.  For the grandchildren she had, and would proudly name them all and count them, we always knew we were loved by her.  For my mother and my aunt, they did not experience her love or her pride in them growing up.  These were some of her peculiarities. 

Born into an immigrant family of sixteen children, she grew up in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley in California.    When the early 1900’s version of the plague hit America, it took her Father and two siblings with it.   Recalling these memories, she would talk of her sister Elsa and show her picture to us.   Meeting my grandfather in bible school would take her to Washington state, away from her family.   With no prying eyes and no family to help her, she was left to survive my alcoholic grandfather’s violent and abusive behavior, and try to keep her five children out of harms way, often unsuccessfully.  Until he died, she was subject to his violent mood swings and unpredictable and twisted behavior.  We never know what truly makes up a person’s psyche or how one survives, but often these experiences make or break a person, and sometimes the pieces don’t fit evenly.    

My brother and I spent time with Grandma, often over food.  She indulged in the craze of pre-made food from the Schwan Man delivery truck.  We would make home-made sodas, feast on their frozen pizzas and enjoy ice cream bars galore.  Perhaps it was from living in a depression, or living with a man who refused to let her have any money, but she loved to order food as much as make it.  At Christmas she would make her famous Mississippi Mud, a goey contortion of cookies, chocolate and god knows what but it was delicious.  Or her marshmallow rolls, some form of melted chocolate and marshmallows that she froze and would slice into pieces.   But most importantly, the Santa Lucia cake and the bownots.  Santa Lucia, a holiday celebrated in Sweden and other parts of Europe, was a holiday that she, my  mother and I started celebrating.  These traditions would often unite us.  It was sometimes her behavior that would divide us all.

When I was fifteen, troubled would have been a good way to describe it.  Living with her was a relief, until I found out she had read my diary and told my aunt the contents.   Privacy wasn’t her strong point.  If you didn’t answer the phone, she would come over and knock on the door, or the windows.  She would knock on my mother’s window at night calling out “There’s a good movie on channel twelve,” knowing that she was in there with her new husband. She couldn’t keep a secret, ever.  She would tell untruths or assumptions about people that were often hurtful.  No one ever knew why.

 After the death of my grandfather, her finances concerned all of her children.  She sent thousands of dollars to the Jim and Tammy Fay’s and other televangelists.   Even when her children would tell her that widows were to be cared for by God and she didn’t need to send money, she would sent it anyway.  She ordered constantly from mail-order catalogs, skin-care companies, and magazine subscriptions, hoping to win the big contests or just give the things away.  When we discovered her ‘jewel’ collection, a safe full of faux gemstones with no value, concerns gave way to realities.  She had spent all of the money from the estate.   She had long ago sold the car, thankfully, because her idea of stopping involved driving fifty miles an hour and slamming on the brakes.  And while she still had social security, she seemed to be bouncing checks every month.  My aunt finally took over her checkbook, discovering that she was still writing checks to televangelists.  She bought a $2000 vacuum cleaner with a ‘lifetime guarantee’, that lay broken and useless.  And she owed mail-order companies and local department stores. 

Owing money wasn’t her only problem.  The trailer that she owned needed repair.  Because she was now in debt, she couldn’t afford her own groceries.  My uncle started bringing her groceries every week.  My mother would bring her meals from the restaurant she worked at.  My other uncle had done so much work on the trailer and repairing and replacing things, they began to wonder if the trailer would hold up for her lifetime.  They arranged for a non-profit to do the repairs on the condition they would own the trailer after her death.  Soon they discovered she was no longer cooking, or eating, unless it was carnation instant breakfast or a meal from the restaurant.  They knew they no longer had a choice.  Her last few months before her stroke was in an assisted living facility, a nice facility nearby to everyone, but she was unhappy with that decision.  But when she woke up calling the nurses by her dead sister’s names, their medical expertise gave her a few more months of her grandchildren by her bedside.  A blockage to an artery, long undiagnosed and permanent brain damage, possibly accounting for some of the unusual behavior, but permanent enough for a death sentence.   They knew it was her time to go when she told them that Jesus had visited her and it was soon after that she was gone.

It would be easy to remember only the bad parts.  But I believe that you can’t always explain someone’s life or their behaviors based on their experiences.  Like the fact that we would shake our heads at some of her behaviors.  But some of them were straight out of love.  When my mother’s husband convinced her to sell our family home and we moved to another house, he abandoned a lot of our belongings.  My grandmother rescued my Little House on the Prairie books and toys out of the garbage and the rain. She didn’t think it was right that he left them out.  And she knew how much they meant to me.  I look back at all the letters she wrote me.  As she grew older her handwriting became more difficult to read, her letters were often the same: what my cousins were doing, how proud she was, what movie she watched on channel twelve.   Her love often involved food.  Pictures of us, eating fruit leather when dehydrating was the new craze.  Or pictures of me with the Santa Lucia cake.  None of us can get the bowknot recipe right, because she probably left out a few ingredients, not purposefully, just forgot to tell us.  When my mother ‘snubbed’ me and told me to ask my Grandmother for her pastry recipe, it’s still the one I use today. You could ask Grandma to show you how to make anything.  She loved to show you.  When she bought a hat weaver, she made everyone hats for Christmas.  We watched Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, over, and over, and over, and over again at her house.  Every weekend.  She loved making snacks.   Saltines with butter. Sometimes with peanut butter.  Patience is needed.  The butter needs to be soft.  Saltines break apart easily.  She was patient.  And often kind.  There are many pieces that make up a person.  It’s the pieces of kindness that can stay with you for a lifetime. 

Life on life’s terms

Sometimes things can be very overwhelming.  Bad news in the media, at work, at home, in the neighborhood can make life seemingly unbearable and sometimes even horrible.  There’s a tendency sometimes to oversimplify, throw out suggestions such as ‘make a gratitude list’ or even shine over what is going on.  While these have been things that I have done or throw out, they are not really dealing with what is.  I believe that the essence of the statement ‘Life on Life’s terms’ is recognizing the ups and downs on the roller coaster of life.   We are born into this life and we will all eventually die.  Whether we believe we will come back or not is irrelevant to the process of dying and grieving that those who remain will experience.  There will surely be someone in our lives who will make bad, even horrible choices and their decision to act on those choices will affect our lives and the lives of people around us.  Whether they are politicians or lone gunmen, we all have to live with those decisions.  So while these events go on, and seem to go on forever sometimes, where I choose to live is in the now, allowing myself to feel the emotions that come up as a result of these events and staying present with them.  By staying present with what is, not projecting what the future holds but rather allowing myself the experience as unpleasant and grieving as it is, I acknowledge what these events are.  I create space for myself to be just a human being in this place called Earth, and know that I am here to experience what life has to offer, sometimes unkind and sometimes unpleasant.  I know that sometimes all that I can control, is what I choose to respond with. 

22/30 April is National Poetry Month


 – the ability or capacity to recognize and sometimes share in the feelings of others.

Told by a therapist long ago that I was very empathic.
I feel sometimes, too much.
Sometimes it is too much for me to look into the eyes of another human being and see what they are feeling.
If they are suffering or lost or in pain.

I, want to tell you it’s going to be ok,
not because I am a pollyanna and believe that it’s all going to be ok,
but because I want to relieve your suffering.
I know it’s deep.
I know that you’re at the bottom of that pit of dark ocean and you can’t breathe,
your life boat sank,
There is no rescue coming.

I look around lately and see sinking ships,
not because I have a skewed view of doom and gloom and looking for bad things in the world,
because that is another disorder and I have gone through that one thanks,
but because I recognize the pain and suffering in others as not something “temporary” or “passing”
because although I know “this too will pass”
it’s the equivalent of a avalanche of boulders falling on too precious, fragile shoulder blades,
clipping the grass with fingernail clippers and tweezers trying to make the yard in the prison
look pretty for someone…..

It is not the sky falling,
nor the dark side of the moon,
nor the world ending
but all of these things and more
happening at once to people,
not just good people but all people,
at the same time breathing the same air and breath and life,
wondering who is punishing them,
who makes up these stupid rules,
who will finally make it stop.

There isn’t any one being creating this tidal wave.
There isn’t a judge that decided it was your day, your time, your life
it is not your turn, your choice, your mistake, your stupidity
and even if it was all of these things
there are others that didn’t decide to get up this morning,
pour themselves a cup of coffee, eat their breakfast, take the car to work and get shot on the way from another person who decided breakfast this morning was bullets.
 Still more that decided today was going to be the day to do something about it,
to take that time off, take that vacation, go see the folks
only to get that call that the person they want to see the most just didn’t wake up this morning.

This morning is no different from any other mornings
and yet boats sink,
tides come,
people fall away,
and never come back.

When the rip tide comes and washes you away to sea,
remember to swim across.
Swim across.
You make no progress up or down as it drags you out,
you’re going out, all you can do is swim across,
paddle, breath, paddle and breath, and wait until you cross the tide.
The tide will take you out,
it’s what it does.
You will get back to shore.
It’s just going to take time.

21/30 April is National Poetry Month

It is not enough to have known you.
It is not enough to have the shared moments with you.
It is not enough the brief sprinkling of time and space that held the words spoken between us.
There is never enough time and space for that.
You, funny, witty, own sense of humor and timing,
not reluctant to reach out, be a friend, help someone out,
honestly with your own shortcomings, failures and successes.
Your time was way to brief.
Your touch was so deep.
You will never be forgotten by those who loved you and those who had too brief an encounter.
You probably know this.
You may have even planned it this way.
But know, that if you come around this way again
we’d all like you to stay a while longer.

The big unknown

I had a friend pass recently, unexpectedly to everyone except for him.  In the days preceding his death, he passed along a box to a neighbor saying if he didn’t make it back give it to his family.  When friends went out to his car to get it in the parking lot, all of his vehicle titles were on the front seat.  His home was in complete order, except for his storage buildings which are apparently a complete mess.  He was a pack-rat, had multiple items that he had picked up for free or nearly free and had a lot that he had given away but a lot that he kept.  He was known for getting amazing deals on everything.  He had given me (2) toasters at one time, I think he had six of them.  So in cleaning out the outbuildings, his family and friends are finding an abundance of stuff, all crammed in with other things that are possibly important.  Which is, post-humorously, humorous.  As though he left everything important and the rest to give his family and close friends a good laugh. Including leaving the toilet clogged, knowing his best friend would have to unclog it.

We all have different beliefs and faiths about life after death.  We have different thoughts and these get tested when someone close to us passes.  We question ourselves, our beliefs and in our mourning and loss, ponder our own existence.  Where will we really go when we’re gone and is there anything beyond this carbon-based existence. 

My friend was an athiest.  He had had prior poor experiences with various religions that made him not belief in anything.  Which, in my opinion, is a beautiful place to be.  When given the choices of junk, choose none of it.  We had conversations.  One of the ideas that he liked that I shared is that the universe has an order to it.  There is an order that alludes to the possibility of an intelligence behind that order.  My astronomy teacher had said that when we looked at the stars and the heavens and how math and physics play such a huge part in our ability to see that far.  As we evolve in our knowledge and consciousness and see outside of this planet, exploring beyond our own boundaries and borders, both physically and spiritually, we continue this evolution. 
The more we try to define and categorize, the more our definitions and categories will define us and then eventually become obsolete.  Can I continue to look at the world with awe and wonder, reaching beyond what I know and giving in to the possibilities?  The unknown. 

Death is the big unknown.  It is the very thing that we will all have to contend with.  The experience that at this point, we can’t share with others on the physical plane.  Or so most of us think.  As the days and weeks go one, I will be listening for those things that can’t be verified but may very well be my friend communicating with us from the great beyond.  Or maybe there will be none.  

So my message although not entirely original is this “So long Wade and thanks for all the toasters…”