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Mac and Cheese

I pulled into the driveway after grabbing a few items from the grocery store.  Spring weather had newly sprung so all the neighborhood hooligans ran around outside.  Jack paused from the kid mischief going down in our front yard and turned in my direction.  From the serious look on all the other kids’ faces, some mystery needed to be solved or monster defeated.  It could have been in the middle of their favorite game, ghost in the graveyard, I’m not sure.  (I still don’t understand that game, no matter how many times the boys explain it to me.  All I know is there are ghosts and zombies and all them end up running from their hiding place screaming bloody murder.  Normally, I have to check about four times each game to make sure nobody has been murdered or maimed.)


When he saw me pull the car in, surprise and shock spread all over Jack’s face.  Immediately, he ran over to the driver side window and motioned for me to roll the window down.  I obliged.


Jack:  You are back so soon!


Me: Yeah, I only got three bags worth of groceries.


A satisfying realization changed his body language.  His shoulders and core relaxed.


Jack: OOOH.  I thought you were going hardcore shopping.


Then he leaned into the car for a hug and smacked me on the cheek.


Jack: I’m so glad you’re home.  You smell like mac and cheese.


And with that compliment given (and it was the highest of high accolade because mac and cheese is his favorite food in all the world), he hopped off to go back to playing with the neighborhood juvenile delinquents.  I brought my apparently non-hardcore groceries into the house with a smile and a warm glow in my heart.  


Jack doesn’t crack open like that very often.  Most of the time he is inside his own head, a habit he gets very honestly.  But when it happens, he can make you feel like a million bucks.  I’m not sure if he knows his own power over Tim and I.  If he ever tells us we smell like mac and cheese again, we both may just roll over and give him anything he wants.  We best not let him in on this secret weapon of words.


Maybe I’m more impressionable because as the boys get older, the more nostalgic I get.  The baby and toddler snuggles have been replaced with video game hangouts, deep dinner conversations or goofing around in the rare moments we don’t have somewhere to be.  Each of them are coming into their own and it is so fun to be a spectator.  From day one, Tim and I treated them as individual whole people, not half adults or big people in waiting.  But the older they get, the more their individuality shines.  They have more of their own ideas to share and more opinions to formulate.  Slowly they are separating from us.  Physically, the need us less and less as the days accumulate, but emotionally we are still their guiding star.  Normally this evolving would make me sad, but I know that they will always be our boys, whether they are little or not.


Today Jack is nine.  Our baby is nine.  NINE.  He is goofy and smart and sensitive.  His self proclaimed nickname is Sweet Fart, but he is still Jackie and Jackanoonie to us.  Last week, he hit his first home run, a three-run home run no less.  He is still a string bean, but no longer little in any sense.  Recently, all four of us have a new obsession: Magic the Gathering.  This game elevates our nerd to a whole other level and we are proud.  So far, Jack has beat us more than he has lost.  One on one, I have been unable to win against him.  He’s a wiley, strategic, smart one, that baby Jack.  


I am thankful I get to watch him in action everyday.  And for the individual he is and the layers he is adding on.  I am thankful for his sense of humor that he gets from Tim (instead of me, thank goodness).  And for his mechanical, crazy smart mind.  I am thankful I smell like mac n cheese to him and that he still kisses me on the cheek in front of his friends.  I am thankful for the previous Jack, the now Jack and the Jack to come.  All of them will always be my baby, even the future Jack, no matter how big and tall he grows.

Mac and Cheese


Fragmented Memories

She must have been hovering in my unconscious.

I laughed at something Tim said and Mama Addie’s laugh echoed back from my own throat.  Do I sound like her?  Or is she just visiting and sharing in the humor?  That thought chugged through as I washed up dishes in the sink.

Lazy Saturday morning light seeped into the kitchen.  The sink full of the usual, it’s-Friday-night-and-I-cannot-even-think-of-doing-any-of-these-dishes-now load.  The foamy, soapy water tried its best to soften the cemented food crud.  I labored at the tower of dishes, yellow rubber gloves protecting my dry, rash prone hands.

The sink bottom finally came into view as I picked up the last dish.  I saved an easy one for the end, a large crystal platter, one that had been Mama Addie’s.  The cookie crumbs and butter grease nearly scrubbed off when my grip failed.  I watched in horror as it fell the immense distance of two inches and hit the cavernous bottom of my porcelain sink.  In slow motion the platter disintegrated.

Broken.  Her platter in pieces.

She did not gift it to me.  It wasn’t some important heirloom passed down through the generations.  I had just snagged it when a box of her old stuff was passing through the family members.  I don’t even remember her using it.  The platter very well may have been on every single holiday buffet table through the years or it may have remained in her cupboard, I wouldn’t know.  You see, when she prepared a meal for us, you noticed the food, not the vessels.  Her art studio was in the kitchen; her gallery, the dining room table.

I don’t have any memories associated with her and the platter together, but it had been hers and now it was mine.  A physical piece, something to hold that whispered my grandmother back to me.

Fancy china cabinets are absent from my house.  They don’t take up any restricted space.  You won’t find any heirlooms displayed on a high shelf.  My philosophy is to use what I have, that in addition to the truth that dusting is torturous and I’m allergic to it.  This is what led me to bring homemade snickerdoodles to a backyard barbecue on my grandmother’s crystal.  I like the reminder that memories aren’t always fancy and locked behind glass.  They get to tag along with us to the friendly get-togethers.  Dirty children come in after rolling around in the warm Summer dirt to leave black smudges as they steal one more cookie behind mom’s back.  The adults absentmindedly pair cheap beer together with a buttery handheld dessert.  Everyone is too occupied with conversation and the warmth of those around them to ooh and ahh over a platter. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

I stood there, alone in the kitchen, frozen and in shock.  The platter in a million shards.  Tears arrived and cascaded down my hot, tingly cheeks.  Why would anyone install a porcelain sink?  Who does that?  A stupid person, for sure.  Can I fix it?  Can I repurpose the razor sharp fragments?  Is there some sort of super human glue that will hold all the minute particles together again? How did this even happen?

Reality and reason set in.  I knew the platter was gone; I felt sick.  Carefully, I gathered all the bigger pieces and set them slowly in the recycle bin.  Is crystal recycleable?  Who knows, but that’s where they went anyway.  The little pieces and crystal dust were harder to remove.  Some ended up deep in the garbage disposal.  I cringed in fear, as one does when you have to stick body parts down the knife laden drain hole.  No horror movie scene ensued , thank goodness, and the platter pieces were cleaned up and thrown away.

The monotonous clean up helped me process.  Relief came in the realization that it was only the platter that broke.  My memories of Mama Addie were not broken.  Our history did not lay in pieces in my sink. She would still be with me, even after Waste Management came to tip our blue bin into their truck.

Actually, the brokenness and the roller coaster of emotions that came after were gifted to me.  They stood as evidence that proved I’m alive and she is still speaking into my future.  My Mama Addie came along with me and my family to that backyard barbecue.  She laughed and enjoyed every minute of it with us.  She will come along to the next gathering even though the platter is absent.  The crystal was just a container for cookies and a trip down memory lane.  The platter broke, but our love and our history remain whole.

I like to take the credit in fish tales too. Just ask my sister.


Broken Pieces

** This story may or may not have happened.  You decide.


Summers in Grand Forks, North Dakota are hot and humid.  With the sticky air comes swarms of obnoxious mosquitos.  It’s the price you pay for living near the Red River and getting to garden in the rich, black, silty soil every summer.  No green thumb necessary there.  Just drop the seeds in and go.  


That August in 2012, my boys were five and six years old.  They had just discovered the joy of pouring their own cereal all on their own.  It was a great situation on Saturday mornings for Tim and I.  Luke and Jack rose with the sun each morning.  Sleeping in on the weekends only became a reality once we taught them how to independently turn on “tarcoons” and wander into the kitchen to make their own breakfasts.  I was not sad to say farewell to the pudgy face waiting at the side of my bed at dawn and, “Mom, I’m hungry.  Can you get up now?”  It was glorious to sleep in until 7am.


One such Saturday morning, I smiled to myself as I heard the TV turn on.  I rolled over and went back to sleep, looking forward to a few more lazy hours in and out of consciousness.  And then I heard a crash come from the kitchen.  It sounded bad, like glass or ceramic dishes.  It sounded like something that would cut and jab little bare feet as they attempted to cross the kitchen floor.


I bolted up and out of the bedroom.  “Stop!  Don’t move.  I’m coming.”  I ran past the blaring tarcoons and around the corner.  Visions of picking  pieces of broken cereal bowls out of bloody feet played in my panicked head.


And then I saw it.  I expected to see broken fiestaware, but the picture was all wrong.  Instead, I saw the wrong cupboard door open.  Apparently, all the normal dishes were dirty and hiding inside the dishwasher.  Being innovative, the boys figured that a tea cup would work just as well.  


But this wasn’t just any old tea cup.  Many years before, when I was a teenager, my grandmother, my Mama Addie, had given me this heirloom.  Her own grandmother had given it to her and she passed it down to me, her eldest grandchild.  It was an antique white cup, rimmed with gold and a pale pink, hand painted rose on the side.  It came with a matching saucer, that too edged in gold and roses painted to match.  It was more than just a cup and saucer.  To me, it held part of Mama Addie.  It was her way of showing me tradition and love and family.


And now, the tea cup lay on the wood floor, shattered in tiny pieces all over my kitchen floor.


Tears came.  Then anger.  I lost it for a second.  “What in the world are you doing?  Why would you use a tea cup to eat cereal?”


Then their own tears came.  They were already startled and scared by the crash and the broken shards of ceramic.  I quickly apologized and tried to swallow my anger and disappointment.  They didn’t do it on purpose.  The boys were too young to realize what a family heirloom meant.


I carried them out of the kitchen.  Their bare feet safe from the shards.  As they hustled off to watch their Saturday morning cartoons, I promised to bring them Honey Nut Cheerios after I cleaned up the mess.  For a moment I surveyed the broken pieces and considered glueing them back together, but it was hopeless.  Some pieces were large enough, but most were relegated to the size of dust and minute pebbles.  I swept them up and shed a few tears as I dropped them into the garbage can out back.  I still had the saucer and would cherish that and the memories of my Mama Addie.


The rest of the day went about as most Saturdays do.  No previous made plans, but the day filled up just the same.  We ventured off to the farmer’s market downtown and came back with fresh goodies to hold us through the week.  I made refrigerator pickles with the fresh dill and cucumbers I bought, while Tim and the boys got into an epic water fight out in the backyard.


As the day wound down, we decided our dog needed a bit of exercise, so we leashed up Clementine and headed out to wind our way down the block.  Walks in our neighborhood were so peaceful with the large oaks creating a canopy and the historical homes artistically bordering the sidewalks.  Each neighbor impeccably landscaped their yard with most also finding a spot for a vegetable garden.  Remember, the black dirt.  Gardening was actually fun and rewarding here.


We meandered down the road.  Clementine decided that a specific spot of grass needed to be thoroughly sniffed out so we paused our walk beside the vacant home that had been for sale ever since we moved into the neighborhood.  


Tim and I reminisced about the last Halloween.  The whole neighborhood set the creepy vibe and went all out with their decorations.  “Remember how creepy this house was?” he asked.  It didn’t need the help of any fake store-bought decor.


“Yeah, all the other houses were lit up, some with music going, but this house was so quiet and dark.  Remember how we saw those orbs in the pictures I took of the house that night?”  Just talking about it was giving me chills.  A few years before, we had learned all about “orbs” during a midnight ghost tour of an old abandoned prison in Charleston, South Carolina.  We were living there at the time and decided a ghost tour would be a silly date night.  During the tour, all the serious ghost hunters gave us an education on how these circular pieces of light that showed up on digital film were actually the souls of the departed, still stuck on earth against their wishes.  At the time, we had marked all that up to craziness but then, at the end of the tour, we saw the pictures they had snapped.  In one, you could clearly see a lady screaming in anguish with her tortured hands grasping each side of her face.  


That’s why, during our Halloween jaunt through the hood, I snapped a few pictures of the creepy abandoned house while the boys loaded up with candy at the house next door.  Later, we saw the orbs in the pictures.  No screaming lady faces, but still unsettling.  


Clementine decided that her plot of grass was all sniffed out so we resumed our walk.  With the empty house almost behind us, Tim whispered, “I dare you to go up on the porch and look inside the windows.”


“No.  Effing. Way.”  But he knew I never backed down from a dare, so I huffed and gathered up some courage.  I figured I could make it a quick trip, a fast peek inside and be done with it.  Dare satisfied.  Bravery confirmed.


I quickly ran up onto the ancient deck.  The floorboards creaked as I looked through the dusty glass to the empty front room.  No furniture, just an old, dusty carpet laying on the hardwoods in front of an equally ancient fireplace.  


I was feeling extra bold, so I yelled down to Tim and the boys, “Watch this!”  And I jiggled the front door handle.  I expected it to be locked but the last realtor must have forgotten to latch it up.  The door easily swung open and I felt a rush of cold air sweep out of the house.  A panicked yelp came out of my mouth and I slammed that door shut.  I didn’t even use the front steps, but leapt off the deck and back onto the safety of the sidewalk.


More than a little freaked out, we rapidly finished our walk with nervous giggles and quick steps back home.  We rounded out that Saturday with a family movie night and popcorn.  The boys each fell asleep before the movie was over so we lugged their limp, heavy bodies into the bunk bed.  Both Tim and I were just as equally exhausted so we crawled into bed shortly after.


Sometime in the middle of that night, I woke up to Clementine whimpering at my side of the bed.  She didn’t normally need to do her business at night, but during rare times she’d wake me up in this way so we could avoid a mess to clean up in the morning.  Now, while I’m grateful for clean floors each morning, it still annoyed the crap out of me to have to get up in the middle of the night to let her out.  I mean, I had already put in my newborn feeding times and random toddler wake-up episodes.  I had graduated to the glorious nights of continuous sleep, and middle of the night jaunts were not on my current schedule anymore.  Clementine must have missed the graduation ceremonies because that night she needed to go out.  Immediately.


I groaned irritatingly and slowly stumbled toward the back door.  As the dang dog was finding the perfect spot to potty, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.  The house was a little stuffy and I was hoping for a nice cool breeze outside on the back porch.  At least I could be rewarded for my midnight wake up a tiny bit.  No such luck.  It was just as humid and sticky outside as it was inside the house.  Not even a hint of a lovely breeze either.  


And that’s when I saw it.  The rocking chair on the back deck was steadily tipping.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.  I looked around, hoping for an indication that our upstairs neighbor had just gone inside after a smoke or something.  But the rocking chair never slowed.  It just kept a steady beat of rocking.  Back and forth, back and forth.

The hair on my arms stood up and chills rolled down my spine.  I frantically called for Clementine to come in.  At that point I didn’t care if she messed inside the house, I wanted back inside now.  She did her thing and raced back up the back porch steps.  I hastily locked up and almost tripped over her hind legs as we both ran back to the bedroom.  


I was sure I was just imagining things, because of the previous day’s dare.  My mind was probably just playing tricks on me, but that didn’t stop me from throwing the covers over my head and inching as close to Tim as I could.  Sleep came quickly, thank goodness, and the light of day helped to ease the goosebumps that had popped up all over my body.


When I woke and told Tim, we both concluded that I was probably dreaming the whole creepy debacle.  My brain was attacking and using the anxieties from yesterday against me.  Oh well, new day, time to move on to the current agenda.


That morning we did our usual Sunday morning rush around.  I ran around the house, trying to get myself ready for church and at the same time making sure everyone else was showered, hair brushed, teeth brushed and in presentable clothing.  Our church was only a five minute drive away from the house, but of course, we left two minutes before the service was scheduled to start.  I found myself wondering if we would ever be on time to anything, ever, in our entire lifetime.  As I was waiting for the last laces to be tied, I decided to get a head start and get into the car.  Maybe everyone would follow my example and the lateness threshold wouldn’t hit the late-laaaaaate embarrassing level, just the normal, “Oh, you’ve got kids, you’re late” level.


I opened the back door and stopped in my tracks.  On the top step of the stoop sat the teacup.  The teacup.  Gold-rimmed, pale pink rose.  No cracks, no glue.  It was whole, just sitting on that top step like an offering.