Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Potato Chips in Heaven

In what ways do you revert to your childhood, and does frequently "going back" mean the end of your world is on the horizon?

For all our maturations and hard-fought wisdom, what does finding ourselves longing for our past mean? Does it mean regression of what we have struggled for in our recent modern history? Is it acquiescence to aging? Is it depressing? Mustn't it be disheartening to experience a breakdown of all we have strived to identify with as "grownups", seemingly beyond our will?

A novel line, (literally, a line in a novel) once told me that the first fifteen years of life are the ones most vividly recalled throughout life. While later years represent the parts of our independent adulthood and all the events of struggle to become "who we are", it is these earlier years that eventually override our thoughts in simple recollections. For good or bad or both, those times of our lives are not just formative, they are reformative.

Because they reform us, back to who we were. Who were you as a child? We were the essence of who we would become, I think. Time and experience can transform sensitivity into callousness, or stubbornness into mellowness...somewhat and for some time. But our traits never really leave us; they are only managed, subdued or highlighted, to accommodate our realities. While we are influenced by our outer worlds, our inner beings are rarely shaped beyond our recognition.

Don't we all both love and hate that we are who we are, come hell or high water? Don't we all both love and hate the experiential times that shaped us?

The thing about childhood is the innocence. The sponginess, the ability to absorb and never forget the very best and the very worst. Amazing the dark times we all had, the detestable dark times that lighten with the ages. The same increasing years that rob us of so many good things also replenish our spirits with selective recall. Most of the time, when we choose to recall, it is of the things that bring about happiness, and away with the grim reminders.

Not so when we are trying to "find ourselves." When our days revolve around who we want to become, it is as if shedding our past skin is the only way forward. We obsess about the shaping of our formative years, dwelling and blaming and shuddering to break free, to be the forgers of our future way.

And then comes the day a tuna sandwich, potato chips and a glass of Lipton iced tea just sounds so good again. Somehow, the "progression of time" made Mom's lunches passe', even unhealthy. Bologna? Spam? A Sunday fried chicken dinner? All poison now (for some good reason) but do we all know that Mom meant well?? Didn't Dad mean to give us an expression of his fondness for us when he piled us into the back of a pickup truck to take us to the country byways?

How will we feel some years down the road if and when our children mock the foods and experiences we gave them, are loath to pass them on to their own? How will we feel if and when science proves the healthy nourishments and the safety accoutrements we insisted they have were pointless, some even harmful?

Oh yes, what goes around comes around. Always has, always will.

Some of the best wisdom in the world, even unbelievers concede, is Bible-based. I speak of golden rule living, and encouragement that love supersedes all. My personal favorite rule is that bottom line, we must come "as children" to meet our final fates. Whether one considers eternal life a possibility or not, the essence of "coming as a child" maintains that humbling ourselves and acceding to our ultimate parent is akin to acceding to the parent(s) we knew as children. Seemingly harsh, they knew best and required much, toward our better interests.
What movie was that where it was said that most soldiers, when dying on the war field, call out for their mothers, likely their most nurturing parent? What do anguishing scenes like this tell us? For me, it says we are all children at heart, who never lose the need for a parent. The natural order of things dictates we most often go to our graves without one, but believers in the Father Almighty never will.

I thrive on that sustenance. I'm not so old I don't have hope for many more years to come, but already I have reverted to coming as a child to the God I believe in. His "nourishment" (word of the bible) I resisted long enough, because it was averse to the "nourishment" of choices I preferred. Now that I am allowing my "Parent" to direct me again, I love that I don't mind this, and wish I would not have minded it sooner. And, I wish, HOPE that I can be better at it.

It is not the end of my world! It is my happily-ever-after, started in good time. And I JUST KNOW...there WILL be tuna sandwiches and potato chips in heaven!!

Friday, January 29, 2016

"Clutter me Happy"

You're on the right page, the "Less is Plenty" page....but this is a post in defense of CLUTTER.

Why? Because the room I love most in my house--the kitchen--NEEDS to have clutter. I have found, if I can't have kitchen clutter, I can't have an ordered, "Less is Plenty" life.

Anyone serious about not wasting money on convenience foods or eating out, but who still craves lovely mealtimes, (versus porridge)knows this. You cannot have hidden blenders, toasters or accessories that require a ladder or serious stooping to access. You cannot have vital utensils stored in the nether-reaches, or you will never reach for them to make truly good meals every day.
I'm not a lightweight in the kitchen, but I am not any kind of obese, either. I'm lithe enough to yet climb and bend and access, and to see it all as good exercise while I work. But I also have a serious image of a dream-heroine in my mind, a matronly woman who nurtures and loves, who drops all her reservations about society-at-large and who just wants to be friends with everyone through food.

I can't be too skinny for this, and I can't be too orderly. I have tried both. It defies my reality now to believe I ever (as a young, skinny cook) asked my husband to construct a cabinet to hide my kitchen STOVE when not in use, but I did. And he did--he built it for me.

For some months, I lifted wooden doors up top my electric stove to expose the burners, and opened wooden front doors to get a sheet of cookies into the oven. All the time food cooked, horrendously gangly doors stood floppy and agape, a real precious sight in direct argument with my intent to hide a modern appliance I wasn't crazy about the looks of. I got the silly idea from a silly woman in a country-living themed magazine, and if the agent who sold us our homeowner's policy had seen it, he would have crossed us off his list of valued clients.

He didn't see it, and in a few months time, I didn't want to see it either. I shamefacedly admitted to my spouse it was a bad idea, and away it went. But do you think I appreciated the stove in all its exposed glory THEN? No. It was banished to the basement when I found an ancient "Monarch" combination wood-burning AND electric stove, and we (according to insurance regulations) installed it in the other's place. The "Monarch" had the "matronly" look I wanted all along, with a no-need-to-cover-it-up factor involved.

So, it's not that I'm not an "a place for everything and everything in its place" person. I go to great lengths for order, and if there's a problem, I fix it. Or my husband fixes it. Okay, so mostly my husband fixes it.

But.....even if you enjoy cooking or don't mind all meals quick and easy, when you've been swept away (as most of us sometimes are) by alluring meals from the freezer aisle, the deli, or take-out places or restaurants, do you ever tally up what it costs per month to not cook at home, even just some of the time?

I have, during stretches of our family-raising years, and it added up to a modest mortgage payment--at least one common to our neck-o-the-woods.

I've always liked to cook, but I've always also liked to NOT cook, too. I have waffled and wasted between the two extremes for many years, and I even owned a restaurant of my own for some of those years. Even as I gave surplus food away to my friends and neighbors, I sometimes just wanted to eat someone else's cooking, and we often did.

We did it often enough and long enough to know this: with few exceptions, food away from home is mostly not that good, overpriced, and rarely lingers for favorable in the mind. And it nearly NEVER lingers in the memory like Mom's food does.

I did have the best example for this, growing up. My mom managed healthy meals and general sustenance for a family of ten on a limited income. We never went hungry and we always went "delicious." I love to imitate her meals, to this day. My dad may have earned less overall than many other fathers we knew, but his hard work and Mom's creativity and enthusiasm for a good meal always provided our family a great sense of plenty.

As it has through the ages, "plenty" comes from a "waste not" mindset. If our sky has a ceiling, we figure what we can do with less of so that we can have plenty in more important areas. In recent years we definitely adjusted to eating out far less, and saw an improvement in our dollar "plenty."

Funny, but now, when my spouse and I CAN eat out more, and at least more "conveniently", the thrill of it is gone. We love this sense of plenty, in extra-good food, extra dollars, extra choices in leisure for other areas. Mostly, we like the sense of plenty in being able to do things for our children and grandchildren; it is the greatest worth "plenty" can exemplify.

BUT. I NEED the clutter in my kitchen to be efficient at what I do. The things I use regularly have to be at hand. With the counter-space of a "less is plenty" sized home, this means things show, they are not hidden, they are ready to be used. They do not get in my way, they MAKE the way for me to get things done.

"LESS" in the kitchen I cannot do, and for one other reason. In keeping with my matronly role model, I love to immerse myself in the "feel" of her aura, and era. I want to cook with the things she cooked with!! They are not all practical, but they are beautiful. They are ART. Vintage cutting boards are my backsplash, and vintage tools and kitchen accessories are my inspiration. Most I have used, many I use often. All are ready and set to go in apocalyptic times!!

Does my defense of clutter make sense, to the spirit of "less is plenty"? What in your life, do you sometimes think you have too much of, but then say NO, I'm good, thank you very much!? Please comment, either here or on my less is plenty Facebook page, and thanks for reading!!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

These Plates Were Made for Using

(More, new perspective on my favorite "Sterbuck Farm" Story)

In MY dictionary, if you looked up the meaning of "bittersweet" there would have to be a picture of my favorite pretty plates alongside.

Let me get the "bitter" out of the way first.

Although I'm happily using these vintage plates for everyday now, it is because I have come to a somewhat sad conclusion: I'm not going to outlast these dishes. They will be the last set I buy, the last set I will use. For a person who has "changed out" dish patterns all her married life, this is a little bittersweet.

But I have a bigger number of this pattern than I ever dreamed possible, and that is very sweet. It is a number bigger than can break in a routine course of use, and I just don't expect anything but the routine here. I'm not going to give them away, because I love them. And I'm not looking for, only hoping against, any act of God or "downfall" in the kitchen that would ruin any significant number of them.

In fact, I've always thought it was a special act of God who brought them to me in the first place. And NO, I'm not being dramatic.

The pattern IS one of the first that I truly enjoyed, actually, in my married life. The problem was it was just one single dish I found, at a flea market, for one thin dime. Oh, that I could have found more, I would have paid their price and brought them home decades ago, as a young mom and wife, trying in earnest to make her house a home.

For about a decade, I never saw another one like it. It must be its gorgeousness, I thought, that made this so. Pretty in pink and blue, I was covetous of more, seeking the pattern out evermore.

Alas, not to be, or so it seemed. I had found it in Colorado, where we lived for fourteen years, the last few in a financial and spiritual downturn for our little family. In crisis, we left, to work and save in California, where our families were. The plan was to eventually move into an also dispirited farmhouse in Wisconsin, one that had known thirty years of abandonment and revealed it openly, no matter how lovely its surroundings were, and even in its very yearning heartbeat.

It still wanted a family. We earnestly wanted a home. When we finally arrived in 1988, we joined together tentatively. "Sterbuck Farm" justifiably
wondered about what we were made of. It had been rejected countless times. Its story, we learned, was one of many "leavings" and in truth, from the moment we pulled in with the moving van, we considered doing so ourselves. The dream of it had been so romantic an adventure, its reality disappointed as mostly daunting and fearsome. It would wait us out, and we could do nothing but try to see it through.

And then the plate turned up, in its very soil, that very first spring. We were planting a garden, and up it came with a shovel, whole and perfect.

Can you blame us for the significance we saw in the pattern that emerged from the earth? It seemed to say, "Don't give up, don't feel dispirited. You are meant to be here. You are meant to give it the good, more cheerful try."

We needed to hear that. We needed to pick up the inspired pace. We needed to quit with the dejection and look up, look around. The farmhouse was habitable, and sound. It sat center of a work-of-art landscape that only God could be the signer of. The folks in our "neighborhood" were friendly and had reached out to us, and our little family had each other. We had to see the positive, and this THING, this physical item that I had searched far and wide for, in places much more likely and appropriate, had emerged from the ground in the middle of our "nowhere."

So it spoke to us all. We definitely perked up that day, knowing the "message" was something worth sustaining.

Our new neck-of-the-woods proved to be a region of the country where "my" dish pattern had obviously, in a previous era, been very popular. One shop keeper said he thought pieces were given away in oatmeal boxes, with others available for purchase either on store shelves or by order. In the late eighties, I started finding pieces everywhere, reasonably priced. Still perfect, still beautiful, to my eye and heart, so I picked up every one I came across. Close to our 25th wedding anniversary, I found a whole box of them complete with two platters and a creamer and sugar, vegetable servers, and much more. For a time, I stopped buying them, thinking what I'd accumulated we rarely used, and that we might never, really.

Craziness.

Why not start using them? I had said I should, and finally I did, for special occasions. Then a funny thing happened. Just like I hoped they would, they put me back in time. They put me back to the days of Sunday dinners and matronly mothers or grandmothers serving them up, of warm, steamy kitchens with aromas flowing out-of-doors, like the Johnny Cash lyrics (Sunday Morning Coming Down)"I walked across the street and caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken...and Lord, it took me back to something that I'd lost."

Ah, YES. Something many of us have lost...that Sunday dinner feeling, or of any lovingly prepared meal, capable of uniting families and sustaining not just bodies but souls, fit for memorializing a "feeling" unto the ages.

In her long-beloved series Laura Ingalls Wilder did this memorializing like no one else. When I was growing up in the sixties in Southern California, her "meal descriptions" transported me to another place and time, so that somehow, I wanted to capture those times and make them my own. It helped that my own mother had a "Laura" mindset about good meals around a family table, and between all such examples another kitchen nurturer was born. No. Modern Day. Apologies for loving the kitchen!!

I can't recall the plates my mother used, and I don't know that Laura's would have been quite this decorative. But I think both would have appreciated them as gems. I think both would have admired their pretty appeal, and that they were easily enough obtained so that they could serve for everyday, and yet suffice for special, too. I think both would have embraced, as I have, the gentle knife and fork lines that have lovingly scarred my plates. These creases, like the lines on a face, represent love forward, love accepted eagerly and love remembered. And no, I'm not being dramatic!

A plate is just a "thing", it's true. At the shop I owned for many years, I used many sets for serving, for selling, for decorating, for bringing home and using. My customers were as guilty as I was of loving pretty dishes; even the men noted and appreciated them. So it is something of a mystery to me that I am sure now
, I don't need another dish set in my life. I don't want another dish pattern in my life.

This is the one that makes me feel most like Laura, and honors most the homey legacy my mother also left behind. It's the one my kids know is nearest and dearest to my heart. And it is already the only one that my grandchildren have known in this household.

It is the one that reminds me a past I never lived, and it is the one I will take to my grave. Crushed, and mingled with my ashes. And yes, I AM being dramatic.



Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Little Miracles

I try and try and I try (NOT!!) but I just don't believe in serendipity, happenstance, or coincidence. I believe all things are God-intended, or God-allowed. I believe in miracles, that big ones are more precious by virtue of their rarity, but that small ones happen so often it is almost as if God is simply injecting joy into His, and our, days.

My Aunt Nina loves to tell the story of a treasured heirloom she keeps safe in a protective wood and glass case in her home. Her "Nino de Atocha" is a small statue that represents the Christ child, and it began its history in our family with her great, great grandmother. Later, in the forties, when family members were packing it up to leave Mexico for America, Nina's grandmother of course wanted to bring the Santo Nino to wherever their new home would be.

The Santo Nino, its story and likeness in statue, first arrived from Spain in 1554 to the region of Zacatecas, Mexico, where our family resided. Its arrival was heralded with the tale of a young boy who was allowed to bring food and water to prisoners in Atocha, Spain. These Catholic detainees had been under persecution by the Moor Spaniards of the time. Family members of the prisoners, under unrelenting fear of the Moors, were further heartbroken to be forbidden even a visit to their loved ones.

The Moors did permit visitation to the captives by children under twelve. Soon, the same young boy was admitted daily, each time bearing a basket of food and a gourd of water. In this, a drama akin to the "five loaves and two fish" unfolded; the basket of food and the gourd of water remained full each day, with enough food for every person held throughout the prison. The Catholics of Atocha viewed this as intercession from Holy Mother, to whom they had been appealing to in prayer.

Surely she had sent her son, they believed, to give comfort and aid to their beloved family members.

Other inspirational stories abound in relation the Santo Nino, and as so many devoted Catholics did, my great-grandmother cherished the family's statue. Her own mother was its first owner-beholder, and it now seemed to represent the very sanctification the family needed toward success in their new beginning.

But it came to pass that there was not room to pack one more item, this declared by Nina's uncle. He was a firm, decisive man, in charge of the journey. It is late, he told the family, we all have to get up early in the morning. Go to bed now, we will worry then if there is room for the statue.

The family did so, with my great-grandmother especially sad and despairing. Many tries had been made to fit the Nino into the box allowed, and it surely seemed as if arguing would do no good. If there was no room, the beloved statue would simply have to stay behind.

In the morning, all despair lifted with unexpected ease. One last look into the box revealed an empty spot, perfectly sized for the Nino. No one in the family took credit or knew how this could be, no amount of speculating answered to the surprise. The space emerged as a miracle, they all concurred. And my great-grandmother in particular took this as affirmation of the miraculous capabilities of the Nino.

In 2016, the family relic holds a place of honor at Aunt Nina's bedside. I saw it for the first time only recently, and was happy to preserve its image by taking a picture of it. On the day I write this, almost three months later, I was amused to revisit the image and note a seemingly out-of-place photograph of a young boy in the glass case with the Nino, a modern young boy, wearing a jersey shirt with one random word across his chest.

AMBIGUOUS. What kind of a word, that? AMBIGUOUS, on a sports shirt? How strange, I thought, although I surmised the young boy to be Nina's grandson, who in his youth had been in a terrible accident and has been in need of ongoing prayer ever since. Knowing his story, the picture nestled into a case beseeching of miracles made perfect sense. But "ambiguous" on his shirt was a puzzle.

Then, within the same moment, it hit me. God's sense of humor, and His ever-abiding love. AMBIGUOUS. At the time I took the photograph of the Nino, not noticing the picture of the modern young boy inside, the word "ambiguous" had been the topic of everyday conversation between my husband and I. The word pervaded our days and it had been the source of great angst! We had to make sure we understand its meaning, in relation to a justice we were seeking in a lawsuit we had initiated. We had to serve as our own lawyers, and PROVE that a circumstance was AMBIGUOUS, not clear, but instead, CONFUSING, in a manner beneficial to us in the courtroom. PROVING "ambiguous" was the very leg we had to stand on, we thought, and according to our adversary's own words.

Our adversaries were professionals, we were not. We were just "little people" trying to right a wrong against us, trying to prove ambiguity. My husband, in particular, was struggling with the word. We had "sessions" on the word! At one point, in trying to lighten things up, I scrawled the word in big letters on a piece of paper, its definition beneath. I folded it up, and my husband good-naturedly slipped it into his shirt pocket. The idea was it would be handy for him to study, to absorb, to change out with the laundry, and study again.

We had to comprehend "AMBIGUOUS". We had to relate its significance in a court of law, and try to get this little bit of justice that seemed so much the thing we needed to do. Each time the mailbox brought forth another notice of intimidation to us, there was a declaration that there was nothing "ambiguous" about our case.

As I stood there in Aunt Nina's bedroom, it's true I didn't notice the word in the "miracle" case. But, I needed a miracle to win my case!! We had been praying for this, feeling knocked back and knocked down many times. One particular day, in a tizzy over a fearsome letter we had received, I literally but accidentally almost knocked my little granddaughter down, flying past her in the kitchen. She righted herself and saved her head from a table corner, and I apologized in earnest. Her response? "That's Ok, Grandma. Jesus caught me."

Jesus caught her. With her words, He caught me too. I righted myself, and let her words sink in. I told my husband I guessed I wouldn't give into that letter, a letter that once again stressed the word "ambiguous." If he felt able to go forward, so did I. We agreed to remember our little granddaughter's observance, that Jesus "catches", He picks up the slack, He saves us from the sharp corners. We agreed to stop panicking at things intended to panic us, by forces working against our trust and hope in Jesus.

We depended on this peace going forward. We lived each day to the fullest we could, and worked on "ambiguous" in the evenings.

Then one day, I received notice that my mother was in rapid decline of her health, that things looked grim and it was just a matter of days. I dropped everything, including "ambiguous," and made the arrangements to fly to California.

It was during this time that I stood near the Nino de Atocha and the word nestled near Him: AMBIGUOUS. I don't know how I didn't note it. I may not have noted it, but the prayer was there. My camera proves it.

Shortly after my return, we had our day in court, and prevailed. Yes, we did!! All along, little "miracles" had prompted us forward, through tiny phrases whispered by daily events, or daily events noted by tiny phrases.

We are well past our happy outcome, well past the one little prayer I failed to note. But today, I looked up that picture. I looked it up because my Aunt Nina has indicated she would love it if our family's stories were told, and I agree with her sentiment. So I read her notes, and found this picture, to examine it closely, and find the young boy wearing the word "ambiguous", nestled against the other young boy who is not ambiguous, at all. He is crystalline, pure. His intent is divine, and for our greater good.

Only today did I see this, so only today did I point it out to my husband also. I told him it must have been one of those modern-age flawed moments, when you're so busy taking a picture you fail to really see what you are taking a picture of.

He reacted as I did, in full. He saw it as I did, and even put the puzzle aside he was working on. We enjoyed God's sense of humor, and we appreciated the power of the prayer we didn't even know was put there for us. We laughed, and we marveled.

After a time he returned to the struggle of his puzzle, a troublesome one
that he wanted to advance on so that it would be easy enough for our little granddaughter to work on with him. A puzzle set aside repeatedly, one he'd thought might be too hard to enjoy with such a young one...and then, BAM.

All the pieces started falling into place.

Like they do.

Like they always will!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

"Yes, I Will Try"

Tacos are
the recipe that inducted me into the cooking hall of fame--in the corridors of my imagination, at least.

I was reminded of this when I recently heard, for the first time, a story of an "aha" moment in my Grandma Rosa's life, a moment related to her "fame" in the annals of her cooking history, too.

In the late fifties, it wouldn't have been called such a thing, but oh YES, an aha moment it was.

It started with my grandma's widowhood. A young mother of four children, she lost our grandpa to an automobile accident when he was just thirty years old. Grandma was just thirty, too. Left to raise her little ones alone, Grandma's horizon loomed daunting. She was a Spanish-speaking immigrant in California, a product of her upbringing, raised to believe in marriage, home and family, and the husband who would provide it all.

She depended on the man in her life for livelihood, and her job was to keep the home fires burning.

In the maelstrom of grieving and shock, Grandma couldn't immediately imagine what to do, where to turn.

Another man in her life stepped up to the plate. A relative with his own family took her, my dad and his three sisters into a tiny, earth-floored shelter in his own back yard. He helped them with food and the basics as he he could, and arranged for the little family to go north each summer for grueling months of agricultural picking.

My dad was five years old when my grandpa passed, with a toddler sister and two above him by a few slight years. In 2015, I have a five-year-old granddaughter we shelter from an hour in the sunlight, with sunscreen slathering, a water bottle, and little to no exertion. Back in the day pampering like this was unheard of, but knowing that still hardly tempers the reality my grandma and her little family knew.

In fact, after a few seasons of this, Grandma suffered an excruciating injury. She didn't go back, and neither did she allow her children to. Instead the family pulled together and made their way into the ensuing years, all the way to adulthood. My dad eventually joined the Marines, and my aunts, one by one, married.

Their coming of age proved a mixed-bag of emotions for Grandma. Yes, they were grown and a worry lifted. But together they were a team, forever her help and more so as the years went by. Now that they would have their own families to put first, the day came she asked aloud, "What am I going to do now? I have to do think of something I can do for myself. I have to come up with a plan."

In that day and place, "Cordelia" Knott of the now-famed Knott's Berry Farm was selling chicken dinners to the locals, at amazing pace. Grandma took note of this, and the light bulb in her head sparked her "aha" moment. She said aloud: "If Mrs. Knott can sell chicken dinners, I can sell tacos!!"

An adventurous and intimidating thought, all at once.

Grandma told herself, "I think I can do it." And then, "Yes, I will try."

Grandma by then was a property owner, and so she went to the bank to borrow money. She moved into a house behind the house she raised her children in, and the work began to transform the family home into a restaurant.

Early on, Grandma was overwhelmed with the commitment. Her girls pitched in, but babies were being born, attentions were being spread thin and exhaustion setting in. For a time, "cooking" literally got shoved to the back burner, while Grandma pondered that maybe her plan wouldn't work, after all.

Grandma soon found she had little room for pondering. Bureaucracy reared its imposing head, when the city notified her that her building, now commercial, would have to have business conducted within its walls, or its walls would have to be torn down.

In a scramble, Grandma pulled it all together. Her sons-in-laws kept their day jobs, but agreed to devote after-hours to promoting and building up "El Rosal", my grandma's namesake. All three of her daughters, Bea, Nina, and Cecilia, contributed the very best of their work ethic and enthusiasm toward the venture. They put together a substantive menu, chockfull of favorite family recipes for traditional Mexican dishes, as well as many American standards.

One false start almost led to two, until a popular, long-established local diner decided to shut its doors. Then, that eatery's biggest customer base, the "Auto-netics" factory, was suddenly impelled to give El Rosal a try. Very soon, addicts akin to modern-day "foodies" teemed on the doorsteps of my grandma's restaurant, in numbers too big to ignore. On the weeknights and days, couples and families filled the place, and every weekday (except closed Mondays) a combination of all spilled out onto the generous patio.

I came of age at "El Rosal," working there from the time I was twelve years old (my Social Security application just affirmed this!), ceasing about the time I got married. Working with my cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings wasn't just a good WORK experience, it was the best, happiest mesh of many diverse memories.

Just before I got that Social Security card, I was an eleven year old in my own family's home. My "aha" moment, like Grandma Rosa's, centered on TACOS, and it too, led me to believe I could and should open up a restaurant...but way later.

It all started with the "Jamaica" (pronounced "Ha-my-uh-ka"), a churchyard festival, oriented to the Mexican culture, in a Santa Ana neighborhood. My dad LOVED to go there, for the tacos. He loved to order a waxy cardboard "boat" of them, sit at a picnic table and savor every juicy, drippy, spicy bite. He always reserved a corner of a tortilla to wipe up at the end the juices and shreds of lettuce or melty cheese that got away.

Oh, how he loved those tacos. I did too, and we didn't have them often enough; the festival was a seasonal thing. My mom made good tacos, but for some reason they paled next to the vibrancy of the "Jamaica" ones, even though no one I knew (then or now) could surpass her in any other delicious thing she ever brought to the table.

One evening I asked her if I could try to make supper. "Are you kidding me?" she asked in return. "I cook for eight kids and your dad every day of the week, do you really think I'm going to mind if you make supper? Please go ahead."

I was always observant of my mom's cooking. Eleven was too old to "Captain Crunch" or "Franco-American" anything, and so serious tacos it would be. Using what we had on hand, I kicked it up a notch with the juices and the spice, mostly. I pulled my tastes buds back to their immersion in the tacos at the Jamaica, and I put in every single thing and more I thought those tacos had.

When my Dad tasted his first taco that evening, his eyes popped wide and beamed big. Not one to gush, he gushed. I was afraid my mom would slap him (or me)up one side the head, for his near-swooning, "Luisa...these tacos taste JUST like the ones at the JAMAICA!!"

Not a lot of reaction from Mom, but at least we had our heads left. Despite her toned-down response, the moment was like a passing of the "taco torch", to me. I made them many more times in the future, and other meals, too. Mom caught a break now and then; what wasn't there to like about that?

How Dad reacted to those tacos said a lot to me. Tasty food doesn't just subdue hunger for the body, it enlivens the spirit. It is not just about fuel, but about fueling anticipation, and joy. A good meal doesn't just vanish off the plate, it stays in the mind and spurs the senses into wanting to revisit, time and again. Even while resisting excess all the way!

Decades later my taco-inspired "aha" moment played on me much as Grandma Rosa's did for her. In my time, I thought: "If Grandma Rosa could sell tacos, I can sell....chicken salad."

Chicken salad was a specialty of my mom's, very simple, very delicious. I wasn't in California anymore, I was in the Midwest, with a more "bread basket" audience, and so really yummy chicken salad on bread, and later on in a "fold", otherwise known as a thick homemade tortilla, it was.

But it didn't start out chicken salad. It started out everything-typical-Midwestern fare, with a little "Mexican" thrown in. It started out, as it did for my Grandma, overwhelming from the git-go. In a very short time I was retreating, wanting to dig a hole and throw myself right in.

I did pull back, and let someone else take it over. That didn't last either, and just when I was lolly-gagging,taking my time to think things through, bureaucracy reared its imposing head. "Insurance" told me I had to get in there and do something, or "Insurance" would UN-insure me.

Oops. New plan. New enthusiasm. New resolve. I served the chicken salad, and the chicken-salad-thing worked out.

Very recently, my aunts Bea and Nina, now in their eighties and nineties, were interviewed by the Placentia, California library. A PBS segment on the history of the town is in the works, with my Grandma Rosa and "El Rosal" a part of it.

Oh, how I longed to be there. For days, I reflected to my husband my happy thoughts of Grandma, the restaurant, my aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings. Finally he said, for heaven's sake, can't you call your aunts and at least tell them what those times meant to you?

Yes, I think I can do that. Yes, I will try. One night of conversations, one night of reflecting on many years. If it can be said, I wore my heart on my sleeve those phone calls. In the end, my aunts KNEW how much I wanted to be there, and what those years meant to me.
And one new, amazing "aha" moment: I never knew I had relived (a very small part) of my Grandma Rosa's history. I didn't know it at all. I only knew I loved the times I spent with her, aside from the restaurant, at her home, spending the night, going to an ice cream parlor, taking a Sunday drive. I cherished my "alone" time with her, as I know my cousins and siblings did theirs.

I remember so many things about my grandma, but there were things I couldn't know, either. How enlightening to me that we had a little bit of shared history. I am so grateful to the graces above I did not suffer some of her darker experiences, but I love the "unity" of knowing now we were once in a uniquely similar circumstance, and we each came out alright with our resourcefulness.

It occurs to me that Grandma knew about this shared history before I realized it, only lately through this public interview. I don't know exactly the workings of heaven, but it just may be that Grandma's experience influenced mine, through her intercession on my behalf.

At the very least, I know now she was the force behind the whisper..."I think I can do it. Yes, I will try."


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

There Once was a Girl

There once was a girl named Darlene. For as long as she could remember, she loved God, but hovered in the kitchen.

She knew God only as her church relayed, from well-intended lessons in a Sunday School courtyard, shallow in depth but rich in doctrine too complex for her to absorb.

And yet she knew Him, praying to Him in earnest, every day and most especially in the nights, under the covers, full of hope. She prayed for a most big thing, and let all the little things go unmentioned. If only the big thing came to pass, all the little things would fall into place.

Sadly, the big thing never came to be. She prayed and prayed many years, coming to a conclusion: the world was just so big, with so many prayers being said all at once, by people more appealing than she, to a God who loved some more than others, no matter what any Sunday School teacher said, ever.

Rejection taken. Comfort sought--where else to go but the kitchen? Not so much to eat the food there--although her mother's cooking was lovely, indeed--but for the distraction. The distraction of her own food creations, the appreciation for the creation by the consumers of her "art", the pleasures served to all.

Without a backward glance, the comfort of the kitchen assumed her loftiest goals. What could be better, really? You feed the people you love with the finesse of a "craft", she thought. They love you for it. They give you strokes for it. It tastes good. It feels good. It nourishes body and spirit and it is not the worst thing in the world to be remembered for.

And so she cooked for the "home folks" first, her mother and father and siblings. Then for the man she married, the two of them alone in a sweet little apartment, and eventually the children they raised together in a sweet, bigger home. She cooked for the neighbors and for friends, and she sought lonely people too, who had no urges to cook big meals for themselves but whose eyes lit up one hundred watts when she came bearing a plate.

Eventually she even cooked for the masses, if the subdued masses she could tend to with the loving attention-to-detail that mattered all her life. She made a small business of it, but carried it out as if it were for the family she loved the most. Because she so loved doing what she did, it had to be done in the same earnestness, whoever she did it for.

And so the girl didn't learn much more than to cook well, and she never really cared. It and its reverberations fulfilled her. No good person ever pointed out to her the drabness of her life, and no good person ever purported that her life should represent further fruition in more significant ways.

But for all the self-assuredness her joy in the kitchen brought, it elicited little for confidence in love from her God. In this she still felt small, a meek, insignificant being. From this, she derived He might still love her later, with the intensity of eternal love, where and how it counted the most. For this end, it was well and good to be insignificant now. It was well and good to believe and trust, and not to dwell on any one thing lacking in the here and now.

A life in the kitchen, thought Darlene, also exemplified her acquiescence to isolation. It quenched a thirst to be away from the world-at-large, in its simple satisfactions with her small hub of humanity. It separated her from serving in worldly capacity, but she never struggled with the humility of loving God and accepting His will for her life. He caused her to love her life, and even to believe fully that other women who lived very worldly lives also loved theirs.

Ah, but from the beginning of time, the world comes to all doorsteps, in one way or another. Stuff happens, and the distraction of a comforting kitchen at times played second fiddle to other facets of Darlene's reality. A loved child's circumstances and other adversities with the home and family made assembling a grilled cheese sandwich almost too much to contemplate. For these times, she asked, "Okay, so what now, dear God? I wasn't made for this stuff, this facing-down-the-world stuff. I always just wanted to stay in the kitchen."

At that, she felt God nod His head and say, "Yes, I made you for the kitchen. It's good if you always found the kitchen a comforting place to be. Now you just have to figure whether you can retreat to the kitchen and call these matters good, or if you need to get out of the kitchen so that you can get back to it in peace."

In peace? Darlene wondered. Does peace mean retreat? In a sense, she had prided her life on the humility of retreat. If she had confidence in her life, it was in knowing her place for the here and now, in her patience and willingness to await the greater glory of God later, eternally. How would she figure NOW that her responses should be anything BUT peaceful and retreating?

And so, she stepped back from her woes, much as the little girl did long before. She ventured to settle back into her routines, only to list as a sea vessel lists in waters overwhelming. She grappled to right herself, stunned by the need to leave the kitchen, to not retreat and sink.

The causes that took her from the kitchen had nothing to do with the kitchen. Swept out of her comfort zone, she buoyed herself in treacherous, unfamiliar waters, a being hardly knowing how to swim. Each time, she likened the wildly floundering chaos to a childhood experience of nearly drowning with her older sister, Cindy. The two, on a family day at the beach, innocently waded into erratic waters, carried unto thrashing panic, saved by two strangers, unafraid and appointed by God.

Motherhood and more brought the world knocking at her door, bringing its maelstrom of discomfort to her. But these things brought more too, love unlike any she'd known before, a sense of un-self, and longing for justice beyond her inner borders. She found her outside-the-kitchen calling.

How now, Lord, do I answer this calling? She appealed to Him as when a child, with a new, and almost-young, extended self. How do I still these quaking knees, slow my racing heart, calm the churning flutter of my insides? I was not cut of cloth for this, she thought, but you have woven these threads, these people into my life, and I need to cloak them in the love You made me capable of.

Somehow, she muddled through, one angst at a time. Along her way, she said, I do thank God for one angst at a time the magnitude of which is bearable, for I know of people broken by many angsts all at once, who do not bear up at all or who in their tumult put me to shame with their faithfulness in His intent.

I can get through one tumult at a time, she said, and she did. The Lord saw her progress, and bore her up. He began to show her His sense of humor. He placed a donut shop in her way, one she least expected, on a "lost" path, a dreamed-of donut shop she'd given up hope of ever seeing, for a reward of "following through" in crisis. He placed a man ahead of her in line at a counter, whose telling of his story provided her a "light bulb moment"--the insight she needed for an adversity she was contemplating solution to. Her Lord God gave her signs and words everywhere, too many to count, too many to talk about.

But talk about them she would, for this was a part of His plan. It is really true, she finally absorbed, that God is here for me, for everyone who turns to Him and who believes, in the good times and the bad. We will have courage to share His words and to meet our ends, because we turn to Him in need. We will open up His Book, searching, and each time, the page we land on will say something just for us and our moment.

With each happy day and each unhappy day, His grace seeped deeper into her being. He did not chastise her for the years she retreated, the years she acceded to others who maintained and sustained their faith as children, who never weakened and only added layers to their foundation.

She loved a time especially, when, opening His Book to "land" on a page she needed, came to the stories of the disciples who followed and faltered, followed and faltered in their faith toward the Son of God. A miracle a moment, they seemed to need. Jesus said as much, asking in essence and in exasperation: What is wrong with you people? How many times do you need proof of what I can do??

These were the days of healing and miracles, of feeding multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish, of calming an oceanic storm to soothe panicking men. On and on Lord Jesus performed convincing feats, and on and on the impressions proved fleeting.

Darlene read this last, in her own moments of backtracking in faith and trust, over her trial of the time. These words indeed were meant for me to land upon this day, she thought. To think, His words have always been here, and instead, for so many years I read cookbooks.

Cookbooks in retreat, but going forward, not so much....

"Footnote" to this entry...the very day following Darlene's "landing" on Jesus's chastisement to His disciples for their lack of more sustained faith, she was driving a country road home from town, listening to a CD. Almost home, it hardly seemed worth changing out its "wearing thin" songs, so she just flicked it over to the radio. The song playing? Just enough time before pulling into the driveway,
to hear in entirety, "Have a Little Faith in Me." Bon Jovi singing, perfect words straight from the whisper of God.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Going Home"

Don't be so sure that "you can never go home again."

It's very true that some memories are better left alone--as they stand, vivid and as in technicolor as the day they occurred, untouched by the ages.

On a recent trip "back home" I erred in a wish to revisit a time and place of my past, the site of an early childhood remembrance.

The setting was a small Catholic Church in southern California. The "event" was my dad's design and creation of an outdoor shrine for his community to pray at, or to light a candle at in memory of a loved one.

The tiny church in Atwood, a "barrio" of Orange County, still stands in 2013, but the question had to be asked: Is this really the place I remember?

In my mind, St. Teresita was a quaint study in worship--a tiny building suffused with the character of the time, the mid-fifties. I recall golden sunlight beaming through leaded windows here, heavy pews of mahogany, and a humble altar that my dad sometimes knelt at in special prayer before mass started. I remember that my dad served as usher for the masses, a prized position that he held proudly.

If I'm really honest, I would have to say that the years have played tricks on me. I have to confess to thinking this church was made from stone, possibly brick--either one a fantasy material for the dream material of the home I'll never (?) live in.

It's not crafted of stone. It's made of wood, and dark stained wood at that. This is so far from my memory that I have to wonder if the original structure began to crumble, and was somehow re-fashioned with this sturdy, practical material.

The rudest of awakenings with this played out in the courtyard adjacent to the church. There WAS no courtyard. Only a narrow strip of concrete walkway with a modest overhang in tones of the same stained wood, bordering a dusty field that housed an ancient oil "horse," a relic I do happen to remember.

What happened to the HAVEN imprinted in my mind? Where did all the flowering shrubs and trees go? What about the stone floor and the primitive tables lined up to conduct catechism lessons at? Most importantly, where was my dad's carefully built, much-used shrine?

I was with him when he worked on that shrine. I witnessed the gentle heart he put into it, and I played as a seven-year-old girl does when she tags along with her dad. I know that beautiful setting existed, and not just from my memory, thankfully. Twenty-something years previously I had taken a picture with my children in front of it....but do you think I can FIND it??? (No, still looking...)

Of course I'd prefer not to have this new image of St. Teresita infringe on the much more precious one I have held dear for so long.
But I think it won't, because I WANT to remember the favored image and so the favored one it shall be.

So what is it that makes me feel I DID go home again, anyway and despite this experience? It was the PEOPLE, of course. My mother, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Yes, we're all changing, every year. Time has taken its toll on the numbers, but not when you realize that young families are growing, too.

With living, breathing human beings you can always go home again. You can talk about the old times, and you can catch up on all that's new. You have ties that bind; you're as comfortable with each other as the last day you talked--even if was ages ago. As for AGE itself--who cares how old we are? We've just lived more, have more stories to tell, and have absolute intentions to make more stories to tell!

Diverse interests and even beliefs aside, we are connected by shared history. To be sure, the history is not all perfect. Like a churchyard image, we can purposefully elect to recall the good instead of the flawed, and to our dying days extract the best of all that was meant to be. We can "choose happiness" to the best of our ability. And we can allow that, when needed, it is often the ones we share history with who can point this out to us.

END NOTE: For some reason the site will not let me post an image today! If I could have posted a picture to this entry, it would have been of a "molcajete" (a Mexican mortar and pestle). WHY you ask? Well, first because I can't find the photo of my children in front of the shrine, and second because on my recent California trip, a sister (Judy) presented me with this "tangible" prize of our family history. It is a "tool of the trade" for good Mexican salsa, and today my kitchen is sending out the heady fragrances of my mother's kitchen. It is the unit, my mother said, that belonged to my Grandma Ramona's GREAT-grandmother.....now that's old! AND that's "going home" again! (And no Judy, you can't have it back!)