31 May 2014

Suck on this, Pioneer Woman

OR
I Actually Can Cook One Thing Well
OR
This is My Mac-n-Cheese Recipe for the Ladies at Muskrat's Birthday Party

I once documented, on this very blog, my frustration over cooking. Go ahead. Read it. I'll be here when you get back.

I've also railed to the gods above, on Facebook, how much I hate cooking. I despise the whole process. I don't like choosing the recipe, then having to slog to the grocery store, coming home and putting it all away. Then there's the whole "trash your kitchen" thing and the entire "grease up your stove" bit and let's not forget the "dripping in the oven" nonsense. And when I'm all finished and the dishes are set before my diners (read: husband and/or mother and/or kids), I typically get a Meh response.

I'm not a cook. I can't taste a gravy or a sauce or a meat or a something and tell you Needs more this. Nope. And I don't enjoy the process at all. I guess you could say I'm more of a chemist repeating someone else's experiment. As far as I'm concerned, if a recipe book has gone through the trouble of being, oh, I don't know, published, then that means the recipes have gone through a test kitchen, have been tasted, and are good to go (translation: no one in the test kitchen barfed or made funny faces and everyone gave it a thumbs-up).

Somehow, though, when those well-thought-out recipes get to my humble kitchen, the chemistry has gone pear-shaped and that teaspoon of cumin should have probably only been a half teaspoon. It's magic, people, dark magic, that's afoot.

People share their recipes with me and, don't get me wrong, I'm grateful, I'm just terrified to fix them because they'll turn out awful. I even visited the Pioneer Woman's web site for a pot roast recipe because people rave about her cooking prowess. For some reason, I've been searching for the perfect pot roast. It's my recipe holy grail to find the one pot roast recipe that delivers juicy red meat that is flavorful and not tough.

I fixed Ree's pot roast and was horribly depressed over the whole affair.

At any rate, there is ONE thing I can cook that is rather smashing. Macaroni and cheese. And it isn't even my recipe. It's from a cookbook. But not just any cookbook. Allow me to further bore you.

One of my favorite authors is Lilian Jackson Braun. She wrote a series of 29 books known as "The Cat Who..." mysteries and in said books, she described the most wonderful meals. Each time I would read one of her books, in addition to trying to solve the mystery before the main character, Jim Qwilleran, I wished desperately to step into his world and have a slice of Mrs. Cobb's coconut cake (Sidenote: Mrs. Cobb is Qwilleran's housekeeper) or to sit down with the protagonist and his cats for a plate of Polly's tuna sandwiches. Everything always sounded so mouth-watering.

And then, one day, browsing the cooking section, there it was. A cookbook based on the food in The Cat Who... books. A couple of crazy Lilian Jackson Braun superfans had come up with recipes for nearly every dish she ever mentioned in her books. I snagged the cookbook and raced home and immediately thumbed to the page titled "Mrs. Cobb's Macaroni and Cheese." This was the stuff of Cat Who legend. Whispered through the hallowed pages was Mrs. Cobb's mac-n-cheese recipe, how she made it taste just so, what was her secret ingredient that made this dish so very special. Here was the mac-n-cheese she made for Qwilleran that he would delight in eating and then freeze leftovers of it for rainy days in with his Siamese cats Koko and Yum-Yum. I HAD to make it.

And I did. And it was glorious. And it's the one page this book automatically falls open to each time I retrieve it. I make it for special occasions and a few of my friends have taken to calling it "Der's Mac-n-Cheese." Muskrat's 39th birthday party yesterday was just such an occasion to dust off the measuring spoons and bowls, and I'm proud to say that Mrs. Cobb and I came through once again. I challenge all of you to whip it up this next week and give me a verdict. Like? Love? Meh?

And if you love it, make sure you share it. Goodness knows there are other "chemists" like me who are out there, fighting the good fight, and feeling like cooking failures. Give them this recipe, pat them on the shoulder, and tell them there is hope.

Mrs. Cobb's Macaroni and Cheese
6 cups water
1 ¾ cups elbow macaroni
⅓ cup chopped onion
1 tbsp + 4 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp dry mustard
1 tsp salt
⅛ tsp black pepper
⅛ tsp red pepper
2 cups + 1 cup shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup sour cream
¼ cup half-and-half
3 eggs, beaten slightly
3 tbsp dry white wine (Mrs. Cobb's secret ingredient)

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Bring water to a boil. Add macaroni, stirring occasionally to separate elbows. Bring to a boil again; reduce heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until tender - about 10 minutes. Drain. Sauté onion in 1 tbsp of the butter. Stir onion while adding the mustard, salt, and peppers. Set aside. In another bowl, combine 2 cups cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese, 4 tbsp melted butter, sour cream, half-and-half, and eggs. Combine macaroni, onion mixture, cheese mixture, and wine. Place in greased dish. Sprinkle top with 1 cup cheddar cheese. Bake 35 minutes.

13 May 2014

Little Shoes

For many years they sat in a cedar chest in the garage. I didn't even know of their existence. Later, my father, in a fit of nostalgia, placed them, along with a few other tchotchkes, on the kitchen shelves near the back door. Along with an old can of Prince Albert tobacco, my grandfather's coal miner helmet lamp, and a few other flea market finds, they sat. Wilted. Dry. Forlorn.

One day, teenage me finally asked where they came from and my father answered, "Those were your Aunt Gladys' shoes."

Aunt Gladys. Aunt Gladys. I wracked my brain for an Aunt Gladys. I knew about Aunts Clorine and Violet from the Scarbro side. And I knew about Aunts Joy, Elizabeth, Myrrel, Barbara, Lottie, and a plethora of others from the Berkley half. There was no Aunt Gladys.

"She was my older sister. She was born before your Uncle Curtis. 1917, I think. She died when she was little. Our mother was washing clothes and Gladys grabbed the edge of the tub to pull herself up and look inside and the tub tipped over and poured the scalding hot water all over her. She died."

My brain froze. At that age, I couldn't imagine being burned, all over my body, from head to toe, with scalding hot water. I thought about all the things that physically happen to you when you are burned. Sure, I had burned a few fingers by this age. "Don't touch that pan! It's hot!" my mother would yell. And I would ignore her and touch it with a finger. Or, in my haste to get ready for school, the curling iron would barely graze my scalp and I would yelp in pain. Those burns, I knew. I tried to imagine those burns all over and I couldn't. Couldn't grasp it. I focused on the injury itself and applied it to myself, as all teens do, and since I couldn't conceptualize it, I shrugged and moved on.

Those shoes stayed on the back shelf even after my father died. When my mother moved to Georgia, they disappeared and I had forgotten of their existence.

My first cousin Tom came to visit over this past Easter and we spend most of the weekend sifting through several boxes of old Scarbro photographs and there, in a white bakery bag, sat Aunt Gladys' shoes. And I remembered the event that caused her death. And I saw it from a different perspective. I watched it through the eyes of my grandmother Sally, a woman who was living a hardscrabble life in a little coal mining town, two decades after the turn of the 20th century, with minimal medical care and miles from the nearest hospital. A woman who watched her only daughter slowly die from a full-body scalding. And I knew her sorrow.

In the 1920s, when Aunt Gladys died, the norm was not what it is now. Now, when a child or baby dies, the parents are allowed to mourn. They are allowed to hold the body as long as they need, they are encouraged to keep their child's belongings for as long as they want. They are encouraged to fully mourn the loss of their child and do what they must to heal.

I don't think my grandmother had that luxury. Back then, society felt that discarding all the reminders of the child's existence was best. Forget and move on. But she didn't. My cousins tell of a tense woman who was extremely over-protective of her remaining three boys. She wouldn't let them eat sweets, she hovered. She was a 1920s/30s helicopter mom. The surviving pictures I have of Grandmother Sally show a tiny, thin woman who didn't smile. And I wonder if that sadness of watching her daughter die did that to her.

There are no pictures of Aunt Gladys. Just her little, worn, dried leather shoes. I know, without a doubt, that if the worst happened to any of my children, I would gather their belongings into a pile and protect them with my life, allowing no one to take them or discard them. And I wonder if these shoes are all my grandmother had. Maybe, after everyone convinced her to let go of the dresses, the toys, the ribbons, these shoes were the only connection she had to her sweet, overly-curious daughter.

Someday, when I am gone, my children will probably throw these little shoes away. And that's OK. But as a fellow mother, I just can't. My grandmother became a kindred spirit last month when I opened that white bag and I decided I would keep them for her, for every mother who has suffered the ultimate loss.

And I hug my children a bit more tightly and a bit more often.

11 May 2014

Mother's Birth Day

Seven years ago today, I became a mother for the third time, which was amazing because just three short years before, I was convinced I would NEVER be a mother. Here, I tell J-man about the day he was born. Thanks, Britt!


Happy birthday to my sweet, crazy boy! I love you and I love that every few years we share a special day.

13 April 2014

Orphan

Death is a horrible, sudden loss of someone you love. One moment, they're there, available to take your phone calls, laughing with you over that funny TV show, crying with you over that spilled milk and the next moment, they're gone. Nature abhors a vacuum but that's exactly what is created when a loved one dies, a gaping hole of nothing. They aren't there to take your call, to listen to you gripe, to laugh and cry with you. It takes a while for your body to adjust to the absence and you may find yourself picking up the phone or thinking, I have to tell this to her before you remember you can't. And you never will again.

That's what the last nine months have been for me. I've been adjusting to the vacuum in my life. The only problem is that she isn't dead. She's still very much alive. I just said good-bye to her last July. When she turned her back on me, on us. After we told her we couldn't pay another bill, that we were strapped already paying for three kids and two houses, she decided that Tyler was a horrible person and refused to talk to us.

It's difficult to pick up the phone, dial her number, and say "Hello." To check on her and ask how her day is going. It's hard to talk to her because I know she really doesn't care. She only returns the favor when she needs something. That she is filing everything I say away for a rainy day when she can twist it and launch it back at me. I can't talk about West Virginia because then she rails against decades-old wrongs she perceives to have been done to her by family or old friends. I can't talk about her social activities because she rails against people who are a part of said social activities who may have hurt her in some way. I can't talk about my husband because she hates him. He has done nothing but respect her, financially support her, and give her oh-so-many do-overs and still, she hates him. I can't talk about my friends because anything they may have done wrong in the past is brought up for an under-the-magnifying-glass examination.

Basically, it's work talking to her. So, I don't. I read an article a few days ago about why introverts don't like to talk on the phone, that it's because we need to prepare ourselves for conversations. It's not that I don't like to talk to people. I welcome phone calls all day, even when they're a surprise. I may take a deep breath before I answer, but that's because I kind of need to prepare myself for what we may talk about, even if all we need to talk about is the weather. If I know I'm going to see you, I think to myself, Oh! I need to ask him about work and family. And I can't forget to ask how he's feeling. Yes, I plan this stuff out. It's hard talking when your inner monologue tends to drown everyone else out, so I go by a script in my head.

I can't go by a script with her. I start with a script and it gets thrown out the window because of the constant negativity and the possibility that my script may be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I said good-bye to her last summer. When I realized that she has no room for the me that I am now, the me who is a mom, an introvert, a sarcastic nerd, I cried. A lot. When I realized that she has no room for her sweet grandchildren, I yelled and shook my fists at the sky. And I quietly said good-bye to the woman who raised me. Whenever I talk to her or look into her eyes, I see a stranger. I've tried. I really have. But I'm done trying to constantly adjust and dodge and accommodate. I have stood in place for 16 years, trying to be what she wants me to be and I just can't do that. I'm no longer 26-year-old Heather, young, innocent, revolving around her. I'm 42. I'm a grown-ass woman who needs to move on and circle my husband and children.

I see a common theme running through our relationship and the relationships of other mothers/daughters who have this same problem. The mothers always state, "I put everything I had into her. All my dreams and hopes were hers." And when the favor isn't returned, when the grown daughter goes off on her own and doesn't return the same focus to her mother, the relationship, the love, breaks. I'm here to tell you that I love my Miss-Miss, with all my heart. I would do anything for her, but my hopes are my own. My dreams are my own. As are hers. I refuse to live my life through her. Our lives began separate paths the day I gave birth to her. And that's OK. My job is to raise her to be a strong, independent woman, not to cling to me and look to me for permission and acceptance.

Maybe, raising her this way, by doing that, by having this mindset, my death will happen on the day I die. And not before.

23 March 2014

Coming Out Of The Closet

I am an atheist.

I guess maybe I should clarify. I use atheist, because it is more recognizable than "humanist" or "anti-theist," and calling myself a "scientist" when people ask what faith I am may imply that I'm a Christian Scientist, which I'm not.

Do I believe there is something akin to a "supreme being" in the universe? Possibly. There are many types of life forms just on our planet alone and our universe is so amazingly big and since we may be one of many, infinite "multi-verses" then, yeah, there probably is some sort of life form like the "Q" of Star Trek who are omnipotent and omnipresent and powerful beyond our wildest imaginings, something like a "supreme being." Does this all-knowing, all-seeing God really care about humanity on Earth. I'm guessing not. Earthquakes in California because "He" hates gay marriage laws? Really? Thirty-eight million people on a small section of a small continent on a small planet in the outer rim of a small spiral galaxy in the Virgo Supercluster of the Known Universe is really going to matter to an all-knowing, all-powerful, multi-universal being? Personally, I think no. I guess you could say that in this sense, I'm "agnostic."

Do I believe that science can answer all of our questions about the universe and life? Yes. Right now, we don't have all the answers, but that's the great thing about science. Scientists know they don't have all the answers, and if an answer changes, they grasp that change, they don't fear it. Someday though, not in my lifetime, not in my children's lifetimes, not in 100 lifetimes, I believe scientists will have figured out "life" and answer the unanswerable. That is, if humanity lasts long enough to advance our knowledge that far. So yeah, the identifying answer here is "scientist."

Do I believe there's a place for religion in humanity? No. I feel that overall, religion has caused more harm than good. I think many times that religion causes prejudices, hate, fear, and stagnation. Not all of the people I know who are religious are hateful, prejudiced, fearful, or stagnant, but religious extremes do cause those things. People who kill in the name of religion. Young-Earth Creationists trying to stop science from being taught in science classrooms. Hate for other religions/colors/sexual orientations. Fear of people who are different, who aren't of the same faith. Religion may teach some morality, but it can also teach all those other negative things. My answer here is that I'm "anti-theist."

All together, I describe myself as "Humanist," because I have more faith in my fellow human beings and our potential than I have faith in some unseen power that may or may not care about us. Does that mean that I look down on those people who call themselves Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish or Buddhist, etc.? No, because we all need some kind of "faith" to get us through life. Mine is faith in my fellow people. Your faith may be in God. Should people who identify themselves with a particular religion look down on me? No. But I know they will.

I know atheists/humanists are some of the most least trusted people on this planet. There are some states and countries that have laws on their books that don't allow atheists to hold public office, among other things. Many people fear or hate atheists. I know that once I hit publish on this blog post, some of you who read this will think I'm a Godless, immoral, horrible person. That's fine. Think of me what you will. Cut me out of your life because of this. But know this. I'm the same person whom you've always known. I just kept my questioning of religion, of God, secret from all of you and it is just now, at this stage of my life, that I feel comfortable enough in my own skin to "come out" finally, and announce who I am.

Please realize that I won't cut you out of my life. I won't try to convince you that everyone should be atheists. I won't make your religion, or my lack thereof, the main topic of any of our future conversations. I am still the same Heather I've always been and will be the same until I die. I will always question, always wonder, always explore. I just want to love, be loved, celebrate, be celebrated, and experience everything life has to offer, and that includes fellowship with family and friends.

I'm a humanist/atheist. I love, I laugh, I rejoice, I cry, I feel, I rage, I wonder. I gasp at the beauty of an early-morning sunrise that bathes the land in oranges, pinks, and reds. I giggle in amazement and joy at watching my children become incredible people. I am soothed and calmed when I jump into the ocean on a scuba dive and am constantly surprised by the diversity and beauty of the life just under the surface. My mind is blown over the incredible wonder of this planet of ours and the life teeming on it. I can still feel all the things those who are faithful feel.

So turn away from me if you feel that you have to. It's OK. I get it. Just remember that we're all spinning on this tiny rock together. We need each other. It's how we're going to make it through this incredible journey through space and time.

Love and peace to each and every one of you.

16 March 2014

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Sometimes, you defend people because it's right, because they're your friend, and you would do anything for them because you love them. And you would give up something for them, in defense of them, because it's the right thing to do.

But that doesn't mean they will do the same for you.

I said this to my mother last week, over dinner. She was teaching me how to make beef stew and we were catching up, reminiscing, and doing what human beings do over a bowl of food; we were exchanging information.

When I said the above, we were going over something that had happened long in our past, something that doesn't come up very often, but as most of us do, the subject had wandered into this far-afield spot we rarely ever visit. And I said what I said because it was a lesson I finally learned just before my 41st birthday.

There are many milestones that occur in our lives that mark the transition from childhood into adulthood. A good many cultures celebrate these transitions in ceremonies: the quinceañera, a bar mitvah, the Satere-Mawe tribe's manhood initiation of wearing Bullet Ant gloves. But I don't think a specific ceremony cuts it. It's many little moments that happen over the course of a life that add to one's knowledge base of understanding humanity. And when one of these moments happen you think to yourself Oh. So that's how this works. OK. Understood, Universe. You mature, most times against your will, and little bit sad that some of that naivete is now gone. Our world, our reality, is a lot easier to live in when you imagine that the monsters are black-furred, yellow-eyed, and living underneath your bed, much easier when you believe everyone has your best interests at heart, far easier when you feel it in your bones that everyone wants to work toward a greater good, and definitely easier when you imagine that everyone you meet can be your friend.

Unfortunately, humanity doesn't operate like that and those are some hard lessons to learn, far more difficult than calculus. The School of Life has a rather cruel Headmistress and she doesn't really care if a lesson stings.

The lesson I'm speaking of in this blog post started when I was 18. I was lucky in that I was 18 before I learned an adult will just as soon turn on you as nurture you and they will do it for their own ends. When it happened, I was utterly shattered. I was there, I had passed that American cusp of becoming a legal, voting adult, ready to become an adult who would nurture and lead and guide when one of those nurturing, leading guides gave it to me but good. I remember curling up between the wall of my bedroom and my dresser, making myself as small as physically possible, to emulate the size my emotional self felt at that moment, and crying great heaving gulps of tears. I think my mother worried for my sanity.

I eventually got over it, but filed it away as a Lesson titled "Adults Can Totally Break a Kid's Heart." Little did I know that this lesson wasn't over. It wasn't until seven years later that part two was presented on a silver platter by the Universe. This Lesson was titled "Adults Can Totally Break Another Adult's Heart For No Other Reason Than They Are Bitter And Want To Make Everyone Around Them Unhappy As Well." When this lesson was presented to me, I did the only thing I could do, that I knew how to do. I defended the person who was being hurt. I stood up for this person, even giving up something I loved in the process. I spread my feet, hands on hips, and shouted at the top of my lungs, "YOU WILL NOT DO THIS BECAUSE IT IS WRONG! BUT IF YOU CONTINUE ON THIS PATH, YOU WILL DO IT WITHOUT ME AND I WILL TELL EVERYONE EVERYWHERE HOW WRONG YOU ARE!"

And I did it, too. I stepped back from this thing I cherished, loved, adored, all in the name of friendship. I did it knowing deep down that this friend would always have my back as well.

I was wrong.

The third and final part of this Lesson, titled "Adults Who You Have Defended Will Not Always Defend You In Return" was presented in my life class 15 years later, a full 22 years after the first part of the lesson. When it happened, it wasn't explosive or in my face. It was actually rather quiet. No one really noticed it but me. When it happened, when I realized that this person, who I considered to be family, who I stood up for, had never even thought to protect or shield me, I was devastated. I remember again crying as the hurt of 18-year-old me, 22 years prior, welled up to the surface, and I thought...

Life sucks. These lessons suck. I hate this shit. I hate this School of Life. I'm done.

Except I wasn't done. Being truly "done" meant shuffling off this mortal coil and I certainly wasn't going to hasten that. I decided after having my cry that "done" in this context meant turning off my phone and computer, eating chocolate, and watching as much Top Gear as humanly possible.

And when I finally stepped back, I realized that all things happen for a reason. They are all learning moments, teaching moments, moments that get us through this ridiculous traffic jam of life and give us example moments for our kids so they're at least prepared for their moment when an adult breaks their heart during their childhood, during their adulthood, and when a friend stops being a friend and becomes just another person in humanity's crowd.

When I uttered those words, at the top of this post, to my mother, it was the culmination of a lesson I never wanted to learn, but ultimately had to. I had to learn this so that when it happens again, and oh yes it will happen, maybe my heart won't break. Because I'll expect it.

04 March 2014

Grit

I was a roller skating fiend when I was a kid. Skateland in Kanawha City was my favored hang out. They had a beautiful, large wooden rink with handrails around one side. The rental skates had just the right amount of stinky-foot aroma and Queen's Another One Bites The Dust along with The Village People's YMCA were on constant rotation. During the halfway mark of my almost-weekly visits, I would hit the concession stand for a Whatchamacallit candy bar and an Around-the-World drink (made especially tasty because of the grape soda). I would skate forwards, backwards, shoot the duck, fall, spin, everything. I loved it.

When my kids were invited to their first roller skating party, I was all over it. I lugged my white 1970s ice skates/turned roller skates out of the bottom of the closet. They're scuffed and old, but they have purple wheels, white stoppers, and sparkly purple laces. I showed up, got the kids in their skates, and was ready to follow them around, picking them up off the floor, and helping them learn how to skate.

But wait, what's this? Walkers?!? WHA? Supposedly, the new thing, are these PVC pipe-walker-looking things. They're on wheels and the kids hold onto them and skate around. When you watch little kids skate in the 21st century, the rink looks full of a bunch of 4-foot-tall senior citizens. On wheels. SCARY! So, OK. Here are your skate-walkers. And... GO! My three sped around the rink, having fun, but not really learning how to balance on their own. J-man just runs on his stoppers while Bubba and Miss-Miss are legs-akimbo, constant motion from the waist-down. I put on my own skates (the only adult to do so - sad) and zipped around, re-gaining my skate legs.

We've done this several times, during summer break and for different birthday parties, all with the same results. The kids use the skate-walkers, zip around, and I follow.

Until this past Saturday. I did the usual skate/walker rental, put on my own skates, and followed. It was chaos. There were about five different birthday parties happening and kids were everywhere (as were the spectator adults). My daughter walked onto the carpeted area, left her skate-walker near our table, got a drink of water, went back, and her skate-walker was gone.

My three kids are all very different. When J-Man has hurt some part of his body or his feelings get hurt, you know it. Instantly. He wails as if he's been run over. Every time. Bubba will cry if his feelings get hurt or if he hurts a part of his body badly. So, he doesn't cry as often, but he will still wail.

Miss-Miss on the other hand, doesn't cry all that much. She's a bit more stoic. Is it the oldest child thing? Or the only daughter thing? Or chromosomal? I don't know. But even when she's really hurt (physically or emotionally) she keeps that stiff upper lip and loudly proclaims, "I'm OK, Mama! I'm not hurt! I'm fine!"

When she discovered her skate walker was missing, she slid/stumbled over to me and said, "It's OK, Mama. I'll just skate without one."

And she did. She fell, slid, stumbled, wobbled, all of it. She would hold my hand for a few minutes and then say, "I'm OK, Mama. I can do this." And she did.

J-man lost his skate walker and cried and demanded a new one. Bubba refused to let his go. Meanwhile Miss-Miss was balancing and learning and adapting.

It's just a little thing, just roller skating, but I can already see the future. I can see a smart, independent, thoughtful young woman, full of grit, doing whatever she needs to do to, even if it means falling and failing, to get where she wants to be.