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Candy from a Stranger

Indonesian Food

I was told never to take candy from strangers.

So I didn’t.

I took a whole lunch, and I ate every bite.

I’ve written once before about my love for the community in which I work. Today reminded me again that I have landed in the right place.

I had just returned to my somewhat rundown host church after stepping across the parking lot for coffee and was about to close my office door behind me when I heard a tentative, “Ma’am?”

I turned and saw a tiny woman I did not recognize.

“Ma’am, have you had any lunch today?”

She turned and gestured toward the battered desk which serves as the church’s Sunday reception area. There rested a half-empty platter covered with plastic.

“Would you like to try some Indonesian food? I made it for a prayer breakfast but others also brought food, and the turnout was small.”

The woman brought the plate to my door, where I still stood. This was unexpected. She appeared to mistake my hesitation.

“These are made from sticky rice and coconut milk. The dark one is sweet and has brown sugar. The other isn’t sweet, and it has tuna in it.” Almost apologetically, she added, “I come from an island. We learned to use what we had.”

The lovely, moist rectangles were plated on banana leaves.

I was overwhelmed by her simple kindness. I hurried to get a tissue to use as a plate. A tissue? Well, I am a therapist, after all.

I thanked her profusely.

“Let me think if I have something I can give you,” I said stupidly.

“Oh no,” she said. “You don’t need to give me anything for them. Please—take as many as you want.”

I hadn’t been thinking to pay her, only to share a part of my self in return. I had been visualizing my sandwich, orange, and hardboiled egg. Who would want those? It’s ridiculous, I know. But that was what popped into my mind as I scanned my brain for a gesture of communion.

I ate the rice cakes at the desk where I am now writing. The savory one was a type of tuna sandwich which hinted of ginger. The sweet one was a gooey delight. Without the banana leaf beneath them, the fragrant cakes had become hopelessly grafted to the tissue. I ate them paper and all.

Rita is no longer a stranger.

Shabby

office

Saturday, July 25, 2015

God and I are having a conversation.

It has no words.

It is summer, and I have four unexpected hours before my next counseling client.

I sit in my donated cinder block office, the window unit clunking out an icy gasp as I hunch at my end-table desk and ponder the praying hands, the plastic cross, and the bold needlepoint “JESUS” which share this tiny island. Christian kitsch.

I dare not remove them. Any changes must go through the Queens of this church, too old now to manage the stairs to the Sunday School rooms below. They loan me “my” office any day but Sunday. It took me 5 years of plotting, but I made the dusty rose curtains and the gilded table lamp with the punctured metallic cardboard shade disappear.

The stack of Bibles can stay. They are my friends. I find my business card stuck in Jeremiah. I read a few chapters and sit, pondering.

Visible above the air conditioner and framed by peeling wood, the tired playground sighs for someone to comfort it. The cheap plastic equipment and the flimsy, hand-assembled jungle gym peer back sadly through the dirty panes, and I am glad the oaks clothe them in dignity while they wait. The preschoolers will not return until Monday.

Outside my door, children race up and down my (usually) retiring hallway. I hear Spanish. One congregation is holding its semi-annual yard sale and cooking food in the shopping center parking lot. I’m going to need some pupusas before you know it.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice and struggle against the snowballing demands of a church in decline. The roof leaks, and the sidewalks crumble….The heating system goes up. A signup sheet on the bulletin board solicits mundane assistance: Who is bringing napkins this month? Paper towels? Toilet paper?

I did a few workshops in the lower level once. The Chinese congregation opened its kitchen and its small sanctuary.

The White congregation is old and dwindling. The pastor maintains a calm demeanor and continues his ministry. It was in response to this attrition that he sought partnerships with the other congregations, and they have all become friends.

I see the African American congregants pass my door regularly on their way to and from functions, and we exchange smiles and pleasantries. I’ve been in this room for 6 years and they have never made a referral. Sonya joined me here about 18 months ago and began working a few evenings a week. Soon, I began to get knocks on the door. People always seem surprised to see me. They ask politely for “the regular counselor.” This makes me smile. Sonya is Black. It’s no problem. We all need to feel safe.

I tried to leave once.

I was tired of mopping the ladies room every time it rained. I was tired of the stained gold carpet and the dirty pink and green sofa, which took up too much of the narrow room anyway. I couldn’t stand the smarmy artwork and the gold-painted plastic shelf and mirror set attempting to look like fancy gilded wood. I am an Ikea girl.

I was done when an especially heavy rain caused “my” water-stained ceiling to collapse. The room flooded. The church dried everything out and put it back exactly the same way.

I found an office at a different church near by.

This office had bus service plus metro access. It had clean furnishings in good condition. It had a door which shut and locked properly. It even had a door bell.

But I realized it wasn’t my home, and I wanted to move back.

Our Director scrounged up a little money. Sonya and I ran our ideas by the lead pastor and the Queens. We picked out a few furnishings, assembled them, and did some deep cleaning. Things are far from perfect but I am at peace.

I throw open my door and enter one of America’s most diverse zip codes. A United Nations of food and a Crayola box of beauty. A patchwork quilt. All these dance before me to the music of Acts unfolding.

Content, I return to the office to consider these wonders.

Four congregations share this hulking edifice, the building which houses The Church. Sometimes the groups go about our faith separately. Other times, they join hearts and coalesce into the Greater Oneness. Heads bow. Many-textured voices intertwine and rise as one in prayer, in confession, in song. Incense to The One.

I am tired. I am shabby.

I am home.

Mommy

Photo credit here.

Photo credit here.

Last month, I was more than usually harried as I worked to close up my therapy practice for a few days of fun and rest. I had upped my caseload a few weeks earlier when I realized I was going to come very close to qualifying for an end-of-year-bonus. I knew I would be very upset to miss it by a few client-hours.

Some of my best gals and I were going to the shore for a long weekend. We had planned it many months in advance. I wanted to return rested to a clean desk so I was busy catching up. Plus, being the mom at my house, I felt that instinctual tug to clean up a bit and stock the kitchen. It is the fear of mothers everywhere that a few days away will cause the family to starve or the earth to stop rotating on its axis. I used to cook their meals in advance. My family felt cared for and I felt less guilty at abandoning them so callously.  This also made it less likely they would spend two weeks of my grocery budget on one weekend of eating out. Oh look! I am both grandiose and controlling.

Ha! But this time they had to fend for themselves. This particular week so hectic that I bought two cases of Udon and some fresh produce at the Korean grocery and left them to their own devices. Perhaps a future post should be devoted to Mom Guilt but it won’t be this one.

My dear Mom reached me in the car on my way to the office. Hearing the urgency and fatigue in my voice, she wished me a good trip and said she wouldn’t keep me. She sounded concerned.

I checked my phone as I left the office to run errands at lunch. I felt worried when I saw two missed calls from my mother. She is not one to blow up my phone. I went through my messages and found one from her. She had decided that if she couldn’t lighten my load, she could at least make me Princess For A Day.

My mother starts every message the same way. If I I saved them all and played the tracks simultaneously, we’d have a well-tuned choir: “Hi, Jane! It’s Mom!” She asked for my account number at the credit union we share. She had thought and prayed it through and wanted to give me some money to go out and by myself “something pretty” while I was at the beach.

I don’t do “pretty” very well. In fact, I struggle to maintain an appropriate selection of clothing for work. After my husband and I tied the knot, he groaned when he realized his bride’s wardrobe did actually consist of jeans and a collection of fraying road-race tees. Then he threatened to make them disappear. He didn’t follow through; and here we are, three kids and 27 years later.

I called back and got her voice mail.

“My Mommy!” I blurted without even thinking. Where had that come from? I am 51 years old. I haven’t called her Mommy since I was very young.

My mother is slowing down. I fear she is turning into a little old lady. She carries a cell phone but doesn’t turn it on. She is afraid of it but won’t admit it. She regularly forwards me emails which would make Snopes cry. She is starting to become cute, and we all know what that means: I’ve started to feel tender and sentimental. And protective. Do not ever mess with her. Ever.

No way was I going to let my mother spend her money on me! If anything, it should be the other way around. I was moved by her offer but this was not happening.

“Mommy, I love you so much! You are so, so sweet to me. But I am not taking your money!” I hung up and chuckled, a little dewy eyed. That was that.

When I finished work that day and went through my messages, there was a second message.

“Hi, Jane! It’s Mom. Take the money. I’m not taking no for an answer. Give me that account number or else. And I mean it, buster!”

She got the account number, and I got a succulent scallop dinner at the shore. They were very pretty scallops.

Christopher, Part II

Cross CountryMay 2, 2015

Dear Christopher,

You would have been 62 tomorrow.

I just spent some time looking at old photos and re-reading your obituaries. My reserve has punctured, and these words have begun to swim. Don’t worry—I will be fine. I AM fine. I don’t want to pathologize the tears I shed when I allow myself to go to that sacred place of memory and appreciation.

I don’t think about you every day or even every week or month. I haven’t for decades. I graduated, and we pursued our separate lives. Part of the distance between us was born of my shame at not having lived up to my potential despite your having offered me every opportunity and all of your skill and—I felt it—love. Part of the distance was a necessary and normal development. There were crops of new athletes to coach, and the weight of maintaining old relationships would have dragged you under. This is the human life cycle, compressed. I may live to be 100 but my athletic death had been foretold a blink after my birth. My leaves had yellowed and dropped by the time I had become a wife and mother. I had made my choice.

I was afraid that my failures had caused you to stop regarding me, stop loving me. Unable to manage that pain, I tried to forgot about you and lock that chamber of my heart to you and anybody else from that time. But kairos had other ideas: I ran into Kendra.

Remember when Kendra and I gathered some of the other “girls” and showed up at your house unannounced about 10 years ago? That day is precious to me. I cried like a baby in secret for days after, and a long-time wound began to heal. How I cringe when I recall the letters I sent in those early years of separation: needy, angry, immature tomes in which I thrashed about, trying to understand myself and striking out at you instead. I am glad that time is behind us.

I was your first female recruit. Do you recall telling me, long, long ago, that you hoped, one day, to have a daughter like me? How could I believe that? I, who had quit when my body was strong and ripe. I, who had reached outside myself to explain the origins of my hurt and fixed you in my crosshairs.

I was afraid to see you. I was afraid to be seen by you. I had aged, and my body had softened and begun to bend. Time is less kind to women. You were in your coaching prime and turning out champions. I felt ill but I knew I was going to make the trip.

And you welcomed me. You welcomed me and my awkward ways as though no time had passed. You had loved me all along! And I, you. We spoke this without words. You never were one to display affection outright. I am not sure I could have tolerated it.

We had never stopped knowing one another after all.

I read the muscles of your face and the crinkle of your blue, blue eyes. I read the warmth of your joy, and it was more than I had dared to hope. Comfortably wrapped in the happy chatter around me, I said almost nothing as we sat around your table that afternoon. But my cup overflowed. From across the table, I saw and felt all you spoke to me in the secret language of friends. Words would have gotten in the way.

What if we had not had that day–that day of communion and completion?

How can you be gone?

Rest in peace, dear Christopher.

C.H.T., III
5/3/53 –- 7/1/11.

I wish your dash had been longer.

For Christopher, Part I, click here. For Christopher, The Rest click here.

Aunt Mimi

Image courtesy of Cath

Image courtesy of Cath

I had to tell you more about Aunt MiMi because I’ve been thinking about her so much.

My Uncle Stanly’s position as a bigwig in the MVA of major city had afforded my aunt plenty of opportunities to indulge in her favorite pastimes: shopping, going to parties, and making friends! Aunt MiMi was both flashy peacock and hardworking pragmatist. She had worked a full-time secretarial job downtown and earned every inch of her big, fat Cadillac and every ounce of flounce in her ample closets. She could easily have become pretentious and jaded. She never did. Aunt MiMi maintained a girlish enthusiasm for life until her last day on this earth.

Aunt MiMi was as vivacious as Uncle Stanly was stern. We kids were instructed to keep our voices low and tiptoe around him. He never really talked to or acknowledged children; in fact, he rarely spoke at all. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh. He usually sat like a statue, his pipe clamped between thin lips. I do have one warm memory of him, however. One Thanksgiving he sat to my right. As he passed me the next dish, his lips curled five degrees heavenward, and he spoke: “I bet you don’t love lima beans as much as I do.” That was it.

Unburdened by angst, Aunt MiMi kept things simple. She didn’t introspect or ruminate. Her world was populated by Good People and Bad People. She had it on good authority that Bad People existed, but she had never actually met one herself. She was the kind of woman I could imagine disarming a burglar with a frying pan and then serving him a side of ice cream and cookies to go with his ice pack. He’d end up thanking her and swearing off a life of crime. She probably had such faith in people because of her childlike faith in God. She was childlike but not childish. She attended Mass weekly, prayed faithfully, cast her burdens upon the Lord and didn’t look back. She believed. She had God to do the heavy lifting, so why should she?

Aunt MiMi was fiercely loyal. Loyal to friends, family, brands, traditions, and institutions. Make no mistake about it: those cookies would have been Chips Ahoy; the ice cream, Breyers Natural Vanilla. And both would have been purchased at the same family-run grocery store she had been patronizing since it opened its doors in 1946. Aunt MiMi couldn’t help but make fast friends everywhere she went.

Incredibly, she genuinely doted on dour old Uncle Stanly. Aunt MiMi even doted on her mother, the formidable Odessa A. Tilghman. Once known as “The Belle of Georgia Avenue” (said she), and pursued by the entire male sex (of course), she had become a jowly tyrant in a flower-print house dress.

Though it may seem at odds with her mischievous nature, Aunt MiMi was not a fan of change. She managed to make it work for her without ever seeming stuffy. The style and color of Aunt Mimi’s teased hair never changed throughout my lifetime, and I never saw her without coral-painted nails. She never seemed to change size, either. As far as I could tell, she stopped buying clothes at some point and just rotated through her two-million-and-fourteen outfits and their matching accessories.

Aunt MiMi’s house got the same treatment she did. I don’t recall Aunt MiMi’s ever changing a stick of furniture or a stitch of upholstery. She and Uncle Stanly had never been able to have children, so I guess nothing ever wore out. Her blue velvet armchairs fascinated us kids during our more formal Sunday visits. If we rubbed the fabric in one direction, the color lightened. If we rubbed it the other, it darkened. The chair cushions were another matter. Sitting for decades with scarcely a warm bottom for comfort, they had petrified disconcertingly.

My aunt often said that if you could just hang on to things long enough, they’d come back into fashion. And she walked her talk. Her house was a magical museum of exotic tchotchkes, fine china, and 1940’s Americana. Her kitchen never changed. Not one iota. It was a delicious study in strawberries, one of her favorite foods. Her downstairs bathroom was amazing too. My sister Gwen and I could scarcely stay out of it. It had sparkly butterfly wallpaper and a crystal dish of scented soaps shaped like tiny roses and other lovelies! Her attic and basement were chock full of treasures, and I lived for the day she’d invite me to rummage through them. I sneaked into her basement for a quick peek whenever I could. The attic sang to me like a siren and promised Ali Baba’s Cave of Wonders but I didn’t dare chance it. I would have had to sneak upstairs, through the master bedroom and then up another flight to reach it.

Sadly, I never made it to Aunt MiMi’s attic until after her death when my mother and I helped our cousin sort some of her belongings. It did not disappoint.

On January 27, 2005, at one hundred years of age, the fabulous Aunt MiMi slipped peacefully out of this world and into the next. She fell asleep while waiting for her bowl of strawberries and woke up in the arms of Jesus.

Does He tango? Because I’m pretty sure there’s a party in the house.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Photo credit here

Rule # 14: Aunt MiMi’s Famous Dip!

Aunt Cookie's Famous Dip

Aunt MiMi was a party in a pale blue pantsuit.

Aunt MiMi had been quite the social butterfly in her younger years, and age hadn’t made much of a dent in her sparkle. Oh, how she loved entertaining! I remember many a holiday dinner around her dining room table. In warm weather, she and Uncle Stanly strung lanterns above their flagstone patio. While the adults drank martinis under the shade of giant oaks and poplars, we children explored the tiny paths among her shrubs and ferns, looking for pixies and blue jay feathers. A large mirrored ball peeked mysteriously from a dense clump of azaleas in the middle of her back yard—a sure sign that magic was at hand.

Aunt MiMi, who lived happily to the age of 100, is remembered for many things. Here are just a few of them chosen random:
-her love of every type of shiny bling and bauble
-her “Kiss My Grits!” apron
-the way she did handstands and leg-wrestled nieces and nephews until she was in her 70’s
-her refusal to get rid of her original black bakelite rotary phone with the fabric cord up until she was forced to move into a nursing home in the late 90’s
-her habit of feeding peanuts (Planters or bust!) to the squirrels from her back steps
-the fact that she was able to convince my father to let me and Gwen pierce our ears after he had proclaimed it “bodily mutilation”

But today I’d like to draw your attention to an Aunt MiMi achievement and Family Rule she modestly referred to as “My Famous Dip.” She served it at every one of her gatherings.

When Aunt MiMi got to the point that hosting became too arduous, she upped her game. She came to every gather bearing—in her own words—“a tractor-trailer load” of this manna. At some point, my mother had developed a love-hate relationship with this dip. For us kids, the dip was the meal. The relationship was all love. Ruffles made great shovels, and shovel we did. By the time dinner was ready, we burped our way to the table in a queasy daze and declined all offerings until dessert.

I’m pretty sure the dip originated as someone else’s proprietary recipe but the trail has long since grown cold. I’m passing the recipe along to you, so please forgive me if the culinary equivalent of the mattress tag police come knocking at your door.

Aunt MiMi’s Famous Dip
(Best when made the day ahead. Can be frozen.)
One 8 oz. pkg. Philadelphia cream cheese
1/2 cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise
1 hard boiled egg, finely chopped
2 TB onion, finely minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup minced parsley
dash of pepper
Mix well. Refrigerate.

Enjoy!

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post in the series, click here. For the next post, click here.

Christopher, Part I

Image courtesy of hdm1652

Image courtesy of hdm1652

The chime jingled cheerily as Aris pulled open the heavy coffee shop door. He smelled Cara’s hair as she brushed by him. Their chunky winter coats competed for room in the narrow opening. He was about to make a fool of himself.

Sitting now, coffee in hand, he casually inquired. “So, you’ve mentioned Christopher a couple of times…”

A month back, the two had met at the home of an old grad school professor. Dubbed “Mr. Chips,” Dr. Miles could be counted on to throw a big bash every Christmas. It served as an informal reunion for decades of students who would otherwise have lost touch–or never have met at all.

A moment ago they had been talking about hiking boots and the best places to get kebabs. Cara bit her lip and grew quiet as she stared into her mug.

“I loved him.”

Aris knew he couldn’t compete. He sat up straighter. He would listen. He would listen and then fade into the background before she could see through him.

“I gave him the best I had. Maybe more than I could afford…. I acted like I was in control but I was kidding myself. He knew me too well. He knew my strengths, my weaknesses–every contour of my mind and body. And he used what he knew. He pushed me to my limits.”

This was unexpected. Uncomfortable.

“So…he abused you.”

“No, no. It wasn’t like that.

“I don’t understand then.”

“I thanked him for it. I wanted it.” She was looking right at him now.

She wasn’t the person Aris had thought she was. He had to look away.

“I hung on his every word. I wanted his love so badly.” Her voice and expression had become intense. “I just wanted to know I was special to him. I would have done just about anything he asked. Deep down, I knew he did love me. But I was just so needy.”

She deflated.

“I can’t believe he’s gone. I never saw it coming.”

“Lovers, then.”

“No. No. God, no!” Reverie interrupted, Cara came to. She broke into an amused smile.

“I thought you knew. Christopher was my coach.”

Photo credit here

I Missed My Dad Today

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Drooping Sunflower courtesy of spyder239

Today seems like a good day to publish this reflection. Blogging about my family has involved fleshing out pieces I had written in years past and adding a few in between. But the discipline of writing and editing is stirring up old feelings and awakening some I didn’t know were there. Focusing so much on my father and our relationship made me miss him so much earlier this week that I just wanted to climb into bed and hug myself.

March 17, 2013

I missed my Dad today.

Driving home from Charlottesville, after dropping our daughter Bec off at a friend’s house to catch her ride back to school, I saw two vintage Buick LeSabres just like the one my Dad used to drive. I became so lost in thought I missed my exit. The car was one of the few models which could accommodate his height. I suspect some odd synchronicity at work, as my drive had gotten me thinking about a road trip I took with my Dad during my senior year of high school.

I can see my father’s hands on the wheel. He’s in the taupe zip-up sweater he wore all the time back then. I remember the way he used to warm up the car and lay his puffy winter coat on the back seat. After my father’s death from stomach cancer in 1990, my Mom sold his perfectly-kept car for a song to an overjoyed fellow who turned it into a city cab.

I had begun hearing from schools interested in me because of my running stats. The University of Virginia was not one of them. I pursued UVA, and the school’s athletic department tolerated my interest. I knew it was a good school, and its running program was strong. In the end, I rejected the school because it rejected me.

I wasn’t terribly excited when I learned I hadn’t made UVA’s cut for academic admission but the coach said he’d pull some strings if I wanted to come and run for them. His lukewarm attitude should have tipped me off but, given the reputation of the program, a campus tour and a meet-and-greet were in order. My Dad and I scheduled some other visits for the same week, packed up, and headed out of town.

I might have been able to swallow my academic pride but I couldn’t overcome the coach’s inconvenienced air and his underwhelming faith in my athletic potential. In one breath, he held out the offer of a 1/4 scholarship. In the next, he took it back: He made a point of letting me know he had a talent pool so deep I might not get to race.

Sayonara, UVA! Hello, University of the Free Ride! Let’s just call it UFR for now.

These were the early days of Title IX and athletic scholarships for women. UFR felt too close to home, and back then it was a popular “safety school.” I nearly wrote it off. The scholarship offer made me take a second look. That and the UVA snub. The program at UFR was coming along well enough to challenge and develop me, yet it was small enough that I would get to be a contributor at the Division I level. As a parent of three young ladies, I have developed a massive appreciation for the generosity my father displayed in squiring me around to several other schools without ever complaining. He was the sole breadwinner, and I had two younger siblings. We were comfortable but not rich. He never pressured me to take the money.

We had visited the University of Delaware (Great school but the program was not far enough along. To be honest, the thought of being a Blue Hen didn’t sit quite right either.). We had also visited Wake Forest (Gorgeous and welcoming but it felt too small.). McGill had been recruiting me but we never made that visit. The coach seemed like such a great guy but it was too far, too cold, and too much for me. I knew in my heart I was not mature enough to manage it. There were a few other offers here and there but nothing I considered a serious contender. So Dad and I visited UFR twice, just to be sure.

I don’t remember what Dad and I talked about while we were on the road. Nothing deep, certainly. Of the trip to UVA, I mostly just remember the nauseous smell of paper pulp and the effort involved in trying to damp down and hide my nervous energy. Those who know me well recognize that when I become unnaturally calm and rational, I am close to panic.

Were the college visits fun? That would be a resounding “NO.” A stoic young woman, I don’t think I came across as friendly or likeable. I looked good on paper but the real-life girl was distant and stiff. I had trouble connecting with other people because I had trouble connecting with myself. At this point in my life I am able to put words to the experience but I would not have been able to do so at the time.

Feeling scared and awkward was a dominant and recurring theme for me. It felt both exhilarating and alarming to have attracted notice. On the one hand, I felt sweet joy and power in my developing gifts. On the other hand, I was sure I would be discovered as an imposter–so much so that I feared failure to a paralyzing degree. I was my own worst enemy. I learned much later from my UFR coach that I had been branded a “head case,” which had discouraged some coaches from taking a chance on me. This assessment had some basis in fact.

My Dad had never been involved in athletics. My father found sports dull and had never watched them on TV or bonded over them with other men. He was afraid of water. He couldn’t throw or catch a baseball. With apologies to 50% of the human race, I am going to use an expression I know you will understand even though its prejudice will infuriate you: My 6′ 4″ father threw like a girl. He was a high-order nerd, a hot house plant, and he didn’t understand the culture at all. A few years earlier he had told me I should stop running because it would permanently damage my reproductive organs. He eventually started to come around to the fact that this running thing was here to stay. The one time he came out to support me at a high school meet, he became panicked when I vomited after the race.

My Dad wasn’t well equipped to champion me through the college selection process, and he hadn’t figured this out. I held the angst and self consciousness for us both. There was my father, only 46 at the time: tall, pasty, his upper body already permanently wilted like one of the giant sunflowers we used to grow in our back yard, making his way through terra incognita like Albert Einstein at a cocktail party. Witnessing his interactions with the UVA athletic department staff made me want to crawl under a rock. But remembering him now, I feel such affection. He was determined to care for me the best way he knew how. He was clueless. He was weird. He was difficult. He was my Dad, and he would have taken a bullet for me. I never thought about the fact that he’d be gone one day.

So there we were, two intimately-related, emotionally-disconnected individuals cruising down the highway in his pimped-out white Buick LeSabre with the blue vinyl top. It had baby-blue velour upholstery, and it’s ride was so soft we barely felt the road. We said little. The engine purred a comforting “ticka ticka ticka ticka.” I think I knew him. He thought he knew me. Yes, I can see his hands on the steering wheel. I drive the same way.

Rule # 6: Food is Love

Rule # 6: Food is Love

We called my mom “Farm Wife.” She really knew how to cook. Still does. Mom so enjoys our enjoyment of her excellent dishes. She got her name because no matter how much we requested, the portion we received was inevitably trucker sized. Whenever my sister and I eat with her and it comes to serving a cake or pie, we act this out:

“How big a slice would you like?”

“Just a sliver.”

“How’s this?” (Holding the knife in just the right place to deliver the dainty smidgeon.)

“Yes.”

“Ok, dear. Here you go.” (Turning the knife at the last minute to loudly whack off ¼ of the dessert.)

An addendum to this rule should be Butter. Mom is a believer! Butter on beans; butter on carrots; butter on broccoli; butter on corn; butter on potatoes; butter on bread, butter on sandwiches, toast, muffins, bagels, and biscuits. Mom would have loved my college friend Petter Jorstad, who taught me about banana and butter sandwiches. Is this a Norwegian thing or was the guy a genius?

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

Piano Lessons

Piano Lessons

My dad wasted a fortune trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I started with lessons at 5 or 6 and quit when I was around 17. I have little to show for them.

It wasn’t a total bust though. I got to spend an hour a week with Mrs. Park.

Oh, how I loved her.

Joo Eun “June” Park was a goddess. The daughter of a successful father and the wife of a successful businessman, she lived in a spacious contemporary home with an open design, high ceilings, and streamlined modern furnishings. I had never before experienced a cool leather sectional or a plush white carpet. I had never been in a house anything like this. Her studio was off the kitchen. We slid open the glass door and entered a world of delicious aromas.

Mrs. Park herself was the picture of mod glamour—even when she was dressed for housework. You just knew she was meant to be a jet setter. Sometimes we arrived right after she had returned from the tennis court, and she sported a tiny tennis dress with gigantic sunglasses. She was quite the athlete, swimming countless laps for fitness.

She had a beautiful moon face, perfect skin, and lovely tapering fingers. I loved her clean-smelling kimchi breath, and her musical, girlish laugh. I loved the way she punctuated her speech and gestures with a deep “unh” which I could understand without knowing how.

I loved being loved by Mrs. Park.

Mirrored in Mrs. Park’s eyes, my sister Gwen and I felt special and adorable. Those sunny eyes showed affection, and it was clear that we were more than just a paycheck.

Mrs. Park was no pushover. She could be irritable. My lower lip trembled when she rapped my knuckles with her pencil: “Position! Position!” And the way she corrected her sons hinted at steel and impatience. But when we had the sniffles, Mrs. Park brought us into the kitchen and gave us chewable Vitamin C tablets. If they were gone, she opened the freezer, plunged a big spoon into a frozen cylinder of orange juice, pulled out a glob, and fed it to us like a popsicle. She taught us about kimbap and shared her fascinating food with us.

We had to give her up for 4 years when we went to Germany. We ended up with Frau Ristevski, God help her. Gwen and I were rotten. I mean rotten. She didn’t deserve it. It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Mrs. Park.

Mrs. Ristevski lived in a teensy apartment under the roof of a tall Altbau (a surviving pre-WW II house, which had been divided into apartments) with her husband and son.

Gwen and I dreaded our lessons
PLUS
Gwen and I were responsible for getting ourselves to our lessons
PLUS
Our parents did little to monitor our progress beyond writing a monthly check
EQUALS
Nothing good

We would hop on our bikes at 4:55 for the 25 minute bike race across the city for our 5:00 lesson; arrive sweaty, breathless, and unprepared; and piss her the hell off. Every week.

You would think I’d have had the sense to rebel and just quit piano lessons upon our return to the U.S.  You would think. But Mrs. Park had seen something in me which was good and promising, and it was hard to resist the lure.

Once we returned, I stuck with piano even when I fell so in love with running and my team that the only way I could continue lessons was to run several miles to her house on one of my long-distance days.

Mrs. Park was a good sport. She protected her piano bench with a thick towel to sop up my sweat and stink without ever telling me off. I am sad and ashamed when I think of how long we continued this painful farce—me still hoping to please her by living up to my early potential and both of us knowing it was never going to happen.

My last recital was the last straw. I had not prepared and I was unable to remember the piece despite many (many!) sloppy stops and starts. I quietly got up from the bench, returned to my seat, and called it a day. I refused to meet any eyes, I and left to walk home the second the last player finished. Not long after that, Mrs. Park moved to Korea, and I lost track of her.

My friendship with Mrs. Park was briefly rekindled many years later when my daughters were small. My sister had chanced to run into her. It turned out Mrs. Park had moved back to the area and was very excited to find us. She quickly made plans to get together with us, and we did meet a few times. Sadly, the reunion didn’t stick.

Mrs. Park’s sons were grown and out of the house. She was lonely and looking for a daughter. I felt both her hunger and the weight of her expectations, and I knew I couldn’t be the person she sought. I was unable to reciprocate her lavish gestures financially or emotionally, and I became uncomfortable. We lost touch.

Both of my counseling offices are near Korean markets, and I go often to touch, smell, and buy ingredients for my next culinary adventure. Once, as I scrutinized a bag of Korean pancake mix with a furrowed brow, trying to recall what was in Mrs. Park’s pancakes, a white-haired granny no taller than my shoulder grabbed me and dragged me through the store. Using gestures alone, she explained how to make the pancakes. I still follow her orders: Pancake mix, green onions, long hot peppers, Korean squash, chives, kimchi. Meat or seafood, optional.

I ran into Mrs. Park in the market a few months ago. I was torn. I wanted to run and hug her. I wanted to hide. In the end, I crept around the store behind her, beaming love at her back, terrified she would turn around.

Thinking about her is giving me a stomach ache. I want to cry.

This is post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post, click here. For the next post, click here.

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