Walking home

18/03/2017

cup2

Conditions

01/10/2016

 

…value dignity in the face of battering conditions.” Beth Kephart

reqieum2The ritual of faith in my childhood taught me to look at death. Directly. Unflinchingly. At seven years of age, I sang in our school’s children’s choir for every funeral. Hidden away in the great ceiling, a small loft for even smaller children.The great organ dwarfing our statures. Both beloved and severe, the choir mistress stands erect, in black, baton in hand. Cold eyes piercing through the young’s urge to giggle – to fend off sorrow. A Gregorian chant of “Requiem aeternam”  begins. We are consumed by solemnity. Only our voices echoing within the high walls to greet the slow procession for the dead. The bowed heads covered in black lace. The straight backs of men in dark suits, like soldiers. Stepping carefully to muffle the clipped sounds of their wingtips against the hard tiled floors echoing against the monophonic repetition. The mantra of children – of innocence –  to greet death. To relieve the sorrowful burdens from the shoulders of the unknown. Of the adults.

An initiation for the loss in my future.  So many deaths, it seems, that every one is personal. The prayers rise up for love incarnate – my mother, my father, my sister-in-law, my childhood friend to those splashed across the newspapers. The drown Syrian child on Greece’s rocky coast, the African-American father lying dead on the street in Charleston, the babes and their teachers in Newton, the street carnage of Paris’s les jeunesses… on and on.

Far from my childhood in months and years, the “Requiem aeternam” resonates. Now, it is my head bowed, my back that is straight. Faith remains the constant.


This post is dedicated to the choristers, past and present, of St. Alban’s School for Boys, where their voices fill me with longing.

Kiffles

17/09/2016

recipe-001The Christmas season. On our table standing proudly are these basic ingredients: Pillsbury flour, Land O’Lakes butter, Philadelphia brand cream cheese and Rumford’s baking powder – the one in the small, red can. Next to this are her utensils: a large stoneware bowl to mix the pastry, glass measuring cups and inexpensive aluminum measuring spoons, a knife from our everyday set, and a well-worn, wooden rolling-pin. My Aunt Agnes Check’s recipe – a blending of Slovak family heritage with Italian sensibilities. A new heritage.

Pounds of Diamond’s unshelled walnuts wait for my mother and me on this winter evening – a school night. We sit at the white porcelain kitchen table-top that my parents purchased when they were newlyweds. Metal nutcrackers in hand, we sit together in a comfortable silence and begin to squeeze and crack. It is tough work for a ten-year old. Repetitive. Detailed. Inexperienced, I laboriously pick out the bits and pieces of meat left behind in the inner shells – spaces dark and convoluted in nature. My mother’s pile is substantive while mine – quite a pitiful showing for the attention I am dedicating to this task – fill only a cup.  Our conversations alleviate the tediousness; our banter brightens the evening hours. We talk of the nuns, my teachers; the friends and the cliques to which I belong and those where I am shunned, already at a tender age. Back to family, she carefully guides the talk, of Christmas gifts, wrappings, of course, eating. Ham or turkey? Both kinds of potatoes? My hands begin to hurt, but I am loathe to leave. Feeling as if I am caught in some dark fairy-tale with the impossible task, I persevere not for my survival, but for my mother’s love.

 

bake-001

 

My son, plugged in, and baking kiffles for the holidays. Same recipe; different generation.

detail

The enclosed space, perhaps an afterthought, at the back of our house  is small. The size reminds me of our inexpensive rug. One that the working class buys, bordering on gaudy, to show that they too, have dreams of more. Here, windows are everywhere. They gaze back with tired faces encased in layers of hardened enamel paint. Pure white, because it is cheap. Chipped from years of opening and closing, despite their thickness. The early morning summer sun blinds the eyes. Brittle paper shades carefully rolled onto wooden rods are tinged brown. Weathered, they remain serviceable still, for this family of the sewing mills and steel yards in Pennsylvania.

My mother pulls on silky braided cords dangling at the shades’ edges. Faded from sun and use, they too, remain serviceable closing out the blistering heat – heat that runs through this long, narrow house of brick as fans whirl. She shuts out the Angelus blue morning-glories. Silently, I watch her, but do not enter. Waiting, as only a good Catholic girl can, waiting for her to relinquish this room. This back porch.

My world. To a small seven-year old girl it is an immense space with infinite possibilities. Closing the kitchen door softly – the shared kitchen door of my mother’s world – brown & white saddle-shoed feet enter. They are eager, but silent. Alone. Breathing in the heat, the tepid air, the wonder of it all.


To balance my life this school year, I have begun an online writing course with author, Beth Kephart. Grateful. Grateful to be able to mesh feelings, words, and imagery for so inspiring a teacher.

Do you remember being angst-ridden with the knowledge that when you returned to elementary school in the autumn, your teacher would have you write – in class – that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation”?  For those of us who spent our summers at home – riding bicycles, walking to the local pool, and catching lightning bugs, the pressure to find something remotely interesting could bring us to tears while gripping a pencil covered by a sweaty palm, forehead millimeters above the blue-lined paper, while offering any deal to any saint for one good idea. Only one. Just to get through the assignment with some shred of ten-year old dignity. Not such a high bar. Do you remember?

I do. And I have finally done something interesting.side

On my summer vacation I visited my two sisters, Sister #1 and Sister #2, in Bethlehem, PA. No sweaty hands this time, but joyous fingers, not to make you envy me, not because I did something so extraordinary, but rather because of this: I found the adventure with my sisters in doing the ordinary. Oh, and being of that age – yes, that one – this list will help me recall this summer – this one delightful summer – in detail as I mellow.


The summer of 2016 with the sisters included the following “special” experiences:

  1. My favorite clothing store, In The Mood, one where previously I have bought countless items (with NO tax!) closed this year.  In its place, however, is an upscale “home goods” boutique to rival any located in Washington, D.C.  Walking into Domaci as in a dream, my soliloquy reads, “I am throwing out all my furniture, and buying everything from here!”  Yes, at my age -yes, that one – I was lustful…for the table, the floor mats, the sofas…even the damn candle!
  2. But alas, Sister #2 and I had to scurry across the street to Healing Hands where our one hour therapy sessions (not a “50-minute one hour session”…you who recognize this misnomer, understand the reference, I have no doubt!) awaited each: me, a Warm Bamboo massage, and dear sister, a therapeutic Swedish one. Never has an hour passed so quickly and so peacefully. Soft music, soft candlelight, and strong hands. Well oiled, well pressed, and well done, it was a feat to get our feet to the floor, stand upright, and totter down the stairway resuming our mundane lives.
  3. The evening brought and Sister #1 brought the next adventure to the fore – fine dinning. While this may sound trés mondain, be assured it is not. Sister #2 and I have no discriminating palates in our genes; Sister #1 possesses all of them! After much first-born lobbying on her part, and sheer guilt on our second and third-born parts, we all agreed to try a “new” restaurant located in an “old” location. Many Bethlehemites grew up with The Lantern’s steak-sandwich sauce dripping down their chins. On the very steak-sandwich spot of our past, we entered an uncluttered, cool and calm atmosphere; we entered Adagio. Have you yet eaten crabmeat in white chocolate sauce? I suggest you do. Food effusiveness –“That was really good!” – is not one of my more over traits, but I remain grateful to Sister #1 for this advocacy work.  And, it was really good.

But the heat…oh, the heat the next day. One simply had to participate in the next adventure!

pool

  1. Swimming. There is nothing that makes you feel like the brave and  intrepid explorer, than to venture outside one’s comfort zone. Sister #2 had that gleam in her eye, so we hit the open road for the pool. Oh, not the one usually frequented – the municipal pool at Monocracy, rather for one where we had to follow directions, travelling up and down the suburban lanes in the hinterlands, turning at Stop signs never seen before – all to reach the Hanover Township Community Pool. Throwing our bathing accoutrements under a magnificent locust tree swaying gently in the 90+ degree breeze, we all but ran like the twelve-year-old selves to which we had reverted, and jumped in!
  2. Refreshed and energized, I talked Sister #2 into a drive-by adventure – an adventure I had quietly kept to myself- to visit an abandoned house. “It’s right on the way home!” I cried piteously. I was driving, anyway. I confess, as a child born and raised in Bethlehem, PA, I never learned anything about a remarkable man named Archibald Johnston – or his home!  Yes, kindred Moravian College graduates – that Johnston of Johnston Hall! He was quite a man; he had quite a house. Parking the car after our circuitous drive through what appeared to be a dead end, we began our early evening constitutional across an expansive green lawn, interrupting a deer, a groundhog, and almost stepping on a chipmunk. Have you ever seen something so beautiful in your mind’s eye that it hurt? It is this house. Even in its state of disrepair -bordering on decay- it is sublime. It is an evocative place. It holds memories of the past, and dreams for a future. It left me with an ache in my heart.

house

Within a few blocks came the final adventures…

  1. No adventure is complete without the solo expedition – a late morning stroll to the nearby café, Jumbars, to meet with a former colleague. Experiencing an encounter as if time had never interrupted defies the logical order of chronological minutes, hours and days. One might wonder, “What is it about this connection that allows the threads of all those yesterdays to mesh seamlessly so that time becomes irrelevant?” Amidst shoveling fresh fruit, grilled muffins into our mouths and downing it with freshly brewed coffee, both of us shared teaching stories, tales of chickens and dogs, futures yet to be. Insulated within the familial atmosphere of this place and comforted by the home-baked love of generations (Thank you, Anna Jumbar!), time stopped. Friendship resumed.
  2. Through the years on my trips “home,” I pass a lovely bookshop storefront. It is only blocks from the sisters’ home, yet I have never been inside. Today was the day. The heat was oppressive, yet one cannot remain indoors for hours on end, no? Sister #1 and I set out for a jaunt. A quick walk only a block away. She, in her charming straw  hat; I in my “Iron Pigs” baseball cap, we were the only living things outdoors. The heat. The words “used & rare books”was my bait; the opening of the door to The Old Library Bookshop, my hook. Charming. Quaint. Air-conditioned. All of these qualities kept us there browsing for close to an hour through books, photographs, until I spied a gem. An early edition, Newbery title from 1930 – Hitty: Her First Hundered Years by Rachel Field, and illustrated by none other than Dorothy P. Lathrop. Two women I admire greatly. A gift to myself,  it is this precious book to mark a treasured few days.

And so I add here,

“I could fill many pages with accounts of that first summer – of the trips we took…of the expeditions…and of all the visits from neighbors and relations who often came to spend all day now that the weather was so fine” (Field 17).

hitty

 


 

 

 

blue19 June 2016

My dear father,

The weather is sublime this morning. Sun, but cool in the shade of our wrap-around porch – the one where you smoked your cigar during the last visit. Blossoms share not only their delicate forms, but the hours in which they parade themselves before the eye. The day lilies – creamsicle orange – are fading as the beebalm’s brilliant cheddar-cheese yellow shouts their arrival.

But, dear father, it is the greens I love. Hues and shades from the ocean’s blue-green imbued in the giant hostas to the lemon-lime of creeping jenny. Green is steadfast. One is secure in the knowledge that it always returns; underneath the hard, frozen ground, green persists.

Green is hope for the faint-hearted; for love’s skeptic. Green is the father who always comes home to his children.

 

Dedicated to Joseph Thaddeus Hudak, 1907-1998. Always loved; always missed.

dad 001

My father visiting our newborn son, Jack, at Allentown Hospital, October 26, 1989.

small tribute

22/03/2016

Mother's dishesSetting the table for Sunday dinners, Christmas, or Easter – the big family holidays – was always a celebratory task for this girl with pigtails. Under my mother’s supervision, together we would enter her world of fine china and etched glassware. Guarded behind the glass doors of her ornate china closet, these were thrown open on the special occasion or Catholic feast days.  Gently I lay each dish in its proper place with its proper placement. Always, the roses greeting the guest. Looking at each piece – a crescent of gentian blue forget-me-knots embracing pale pink roses bursting forth – infused me a shiver of joy and pride. Each piece became a mirror of the next, until the table was a field filled with wildflowers. Throughout the years from girlhood to adolescence, I never grew tired of this ritual. Processing around the table, dish in hand – each one an invitation – I knew in my heart that these objects held more than a meal. They held my family together.

Mother to daughter, this tradition became my world, too.  Unpacked from the brown cardboard boxes, her wedding dishes came to live in our rough, cherry cupboard – a $40 purchase from a stall at the Women’s Farmer Market. My husband and I, living far from home, began our own tradition of family dinners with dear friends and neighbors.

The wooden doors have been closed on this part of my history for some time now. The children are grown with their individual sensibilities – roses not among them. The dishes are still and silent, stacked – albeit lovingly – at the bottom of our windowless cupboard. Sentinels.  Waiting.

This year I find myself able to accept that my future and that of my children belong only to each one. Once again, I wrap each piece and fill the cardboard boxes.  They are my past, and I am letting go – releasing the objects, but keeping their love. They are ready to go elsewhere, to live another life. A new family with new traditions to grace the table of strangers.  Fresh eyes to see the beauty in the bouquets of roses and forget-me-knots. Kind hearts to infuse love into what was once, a long time ago, my mother’s best china.

An autumn day. Sugar maple yellows and reds are firecrackers exploding against the blue sky. Cool air calls for a scarf wrapped loosely around the neck, against a heavy, cable-knit sweater. A never-ending carpet of dogwood and oak leaves muffle footfalls leading from our house, today. Loading boxes in the car. Returns. Years shared, packed with haste and anger.

It has been a “summer into fall season” of heartache for our household. Not sorrow as with death, but the dull heartache from reminders of loss both past and recent. Driving down the neighborhood streets, tears fill the eyes unexpectedly. Absence of objects associated with love and friendships. Voids shout at the eye. Autumn is the season that honors loss. Blossoms die. Trees stand in their solitude, grey and skeletal. Animals begin to burrow into the deep, lining their dens for warmth while their bodies armor themselves for stillness. Slow. Patient. Warm.

Birthday boy

Tonight is for family. Small. Quiet. Intimate. We are honoring a birthday. We are reclaiming one that was fraught with pain and hurt. We are owning it tonight for our son, a night that could have well been his birthday if he had not been so anxious to join us twenty-six years ago. We will share a home cooked meal – a simple one the color of autumn – carrot soup. We will have cake and gifts. Candles will be lit. We will affirm – no matter what happens in a week, a year, or in life – our family remains steadfast.

Cooking: the books

28/07/2015

Italian cookbookOne of the more mundane tasks set aside for our family this summer is downsizing..one small area at a time. It is the only way I know to maintain any semblence of good humor. Today, the spouse and I tackled the print cookbooks.  Many were “handed down” or gifted from family and friends decades ago. Moreso, there are recipes with handwritten notes and dates – or even a drawing of a “skull & crossbones”  next to a particular cookie recipe (which I will not share with you).  We sit and reminisce, laugh, and sigh. It is time to let someone else find their memories here.

250 Irish Recipes: Traditional and Modern. Dublin: Mount Salus, 1962. Print.
This was given to us by my in-laws. My father-in-law always envied those of Irish descent. So when they traveled to Ireland, this little books was carried back by my mother-in-law.  She was a fabulous cook who studied with James Beard and others. Why we have this book, I have no idea as neither my husband or I even cooked one recipe.  Perhaps it was just a reminder – a link to our parents – a time gone by, and “Garlic Cough Syrup” should we ever need it!

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photo of Takoma Junction

image from The Silver Spring Voice online article, “Nostalgic wall mural obliterated” written by Diana Kohn, August 7, 2014.

A dear neighbor and friend, Faith, has written a wonderful poem about the street & small town in which we live. Her words are remarkable in the way that they capture so directly, the feelings and images about the changes we both are witness to during the past thirty or more years. She has graciously given me permission to share with you.


There Goes the Neighborhood

I
Up the hill at the top of my street, High’s Dairy Store
Sold ice cream cones for fifteen cents,
Until too many break-ins brought an end to that, and they moved on.
TJ’s minimart came next to fill that space
With candy, soda, milk, TP and strange assorted canned goods no one bought,
Unless they had to.
Still when unexpected snow closed every other store in town,
Bu had milk and bread to sell and lottery tickets, too. Now he’s moved out
Like the juvenile delinquents living just across from me.
I don’t miss the cop cars or the sound of “firecrackers” at the druggy’s house, when
Terrified, the toddler and her granny ran for help
Into the street at night.

II
Last week they razed a 1920s bungalow a few doors down:
A huge construction’s going up that fills the whole damn lot.
A house like mine was gutted, then expanded in all six directions.
The meatloaf special and the diner serving it are gone, but we have tofu, sushi at our eight cafes.
Sunday a farmer’s market fills the square and every week some kind of festival is celebrated there.
We’ve got a House and Garden Tour, even a poet laureate.
Are these the signs of gentrification?
There’s still some quirkiness about us, but so much has changed.
Some people say we’re moving on. Others say, “We have arrived”–
No longer Tacky Park or Berkeley East, we’re now a destination.

III
Up the hill at the top of my street you can do hot yoga, then undo it all next door
At Springmill Bakery, opened yesterday–“You want a double latte with your cupcake?”–
Exactly where High’s Dairy store once stood.

Faith Bueltmann Stern 2015

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