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Apples. Trees.

“Mommy?” It was my two-year-old daughter’s voice. I heard her when I went up to bed.

She was sitting up in the bed, clutching a book. In the dark. Two or three hours after I had put her to bed. This was the same book she had asked me to read at bedtime, when I had refused on the grounds of it getting late and having already read her another book.

I was stunned by this child’s endurance. My husband was impressed with her tenacity. I told her it was way past time for her to be asleep, and she — incredibly — asked me again to read her the book.

I was not in the habit of negotiating with two-year-olds. We looked at each other, me with my offended parent sensibilities, she with her offended toddler ones, while I tried to decide on an appropriate course of action. I could absolutely not read her this story. Reading the book would indicate weakness, a small opening which she would surely exploit, over and over, until I was only nominally the parent and she would be in charge. I have seen these parents, the ones who impose no restrictions or rules on their kids. I have seen those kids, too, and I don’t like them. My daughter would not be one of them.

Just as I was bracing for the coming battle of wills, my husband said that this sounded like me, my mother,* and the eggs all over again.

I am six years old. I am alone at the table, facing down a cold, congealed fried egg. It had been hot when it was served to me. I don’t like eggs. Just the smell makes me gag. I have eaten the sausage, the grits, and the cinnamon roll. My grandmother said that the first time she fed eggs to me as a baby I spat them back at her, and she never tried it again. My mother insists that I eat the egg. She and my father have left the table. I bury some deep in the trash so that she won’t see what I did. A small amount over a couple of hours, not enough to be suspicious, but enough to get me excused from the table. This is repeated on Sundays over several months, until my mother gives up. I turn out fine.

I opened my mouth to disagree with my husband. My righteous parental ire wanted to insist that this was a completely different situation, but I knew it was not. Parents aren’t always right, and we have to work with the child we have, not our vision of what the child should do.

I sat down on the bed. “Ok, sweetie. Give Mommy the book.”

My daughter is turning out fine.

*My mother is a lovely person. She now claims no memory of these events.

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The Greatest of These is Love

I walked in on an intimate moment between my grandparents back in 2002. Their backs were to the door, so they did not see me. Gran had pulled a chair right next to Granddaddy’s wheelchair. She was holding up one side of the newspaper and he was holding up the other side. She was reading to him. I was so struck by the grace contained in that moment that I backed silently away.

I remembered that moment this weekend while attending my cousin’s wedding, and how pleased our grandparents would have been to see it. For them, there was nothing more important than family. Gran, whose name was Marie Norris Brooks, was beautiful, graceful, and wise. Marion Jackson Brooks, our Granddaddy, was loud, determined, and wise. Born in 1921 and 1920, they grew up two houses from each other in segregated Fort Worth, Texas. Marie’s parents were a tailor and a teacher, Jack’s were a postal clerk and a homemaker. They did not pay much mind to each other, though they moved in the same social circle. Jack left for college at Prairieview A&M in 1937. Marie went to Wiley College the following year.

Jack had majored in the sciences because he intended to become a doctor. Marie was going to be a social worker. Those plans changed when the US entered WWII. Jack enlisted and commanded a truck company in France. Marie moved to Washington, DC to be one of the “government girls” working in the Office of War Information.

Once the war was over, they both came home to Fort Worth. The first time they saw each other after they returned was at a birthday party for a mutual friend. Jack saw Marie and knew immediately that she was the one for him. He asked if he could call on her. Marie and told him that all of her friends could call on her. Flustered, he explained that he wanted to court her. She agreed to go out with him.

Norris Brooks wedding 1945That date ended with him proposing to her. She liked him, but not enough to consider marriage. She refused. He asked her for another date, which also ended with him proposing. She refused again. After the third date he told her that he was going to keep asking until she said yes. They were married on Christmas Day, 1945.

In the 57 years they were married, they raised 5 children, who in turn gave them 10 grandchildren. There were professional accomplishments and honors and awards, but always love. Whenever I went to visit them, entering their house was like stepping into a soothing warm bath. Their feelings for each other and for the family were almost tangible, from the dozens of pictures in the breakfast nook to their enthusiastic encouragement of us to the tray of cheese enchiladas fresh from the oven.

My grandfather died the year after I walked in on them, and my grandmother died in 2009. I miss them, but I know we are all marked by their loving example. I hope I can be that graceful after more than 50 years of marriage. I wish that for my cousin and her new husband,too.

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A Soldier’s Life

William C. Bryant, Sr. 1944
William C. Bryant, Sr. 1944

He wanted to be a paratrooper. He was a good soldier, and a tough but respected drill sergeant, but he dreamed of jumping out of planes. He submitted his application as soon as they announced that Black soldiers would be considered for those positions.

Although the rules had changed, attitudes about Black soldiers had not. The white doctor who examined him was brusque, almost rude. It was clear that this doctor didn’t think much of the idea of Black paratroopers.  After the x-rays, the doctor denied his request, saying there was an unformed bone in his neck.

He had never heard of such a thing. It sounded ridiculous, like one more made-up obstacle to constrain him. He left the exam room convinced there was no unformed bone, only fully formed racism.

Leading his men through the Italian forest a few weeks later, he received word of a problem at the end of the line. He directed his men to keep moving and jogged back to resolve it. When he reached the rear, an explosion blew up the front, where he had been moments before.

He received a Bronze Star for successfully carrying a message through heavy fire to another camp. The message: We’re Americans, too. Stop firing on us.

After the war, he went home to his wife and infant son. Graduated from college. Built a good life. Saw his son marry. Became a grandfather. Felt the insistent pains of an aging, aching back.

After the x-rays, the young doctor asked him, “Did you know that you have an unformed bone in your neck?”

Surprised, he answered, “I’ve heard that somewhere.” Then, remembering the Army doctor, “What would happen if I had to do something like parachute out of a plane?”

“You would snap your neck and die before you hit the ground,” the doctor told him. “Why do you ask?”

He shrugged. “Just wondering,” he answered, grateful for the life that that long ago doctor had given him.

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Wasting Time?

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“Did they buy anything?” the vendor next to me asked.

“No,” I said.

“They shouldn’t waste your time like that.”

I was taken aback by that statement. We do, sometimes, get people who will monopolize a vendor. After a question or two about the artwork, they just keep talking (about their toxic friend, or politics, or their choice to go vegan) even when you clearly have other customers who want to ask questions. Most people who stop at my booth are delightful, though. Something about dolls makes them friendly and a little nostalgic. I enjoy hearing their stories.

That day it was a mother and her daughter, who looked to be about 9 or 10. It was late in the afternoon, and foot traffic had slowed to almost nothing. The mother had made it clear that they were just looking that day, but when she asked a few questions about the dolls her daughter perked up and joined the conversation. We talked about the first dolls I made for my own daughter, and how I kept trying when they didn’t look the way I wanted. The daughter told me about some of the things she tried and gave up on, and some things she wanted to learn. She said she was starting to understand that it takes a lot of work to get really good at an activity. She invented a story about some of the dolls being best friends and going on an adventure. We talked for about 10 minutes. Finally, the mother said that they had to go. She picked up one of my business cards and mouthed, “We’ll be in touch.”

The daughter told me good-bye and then asked, “May I give you a hug?”

Was this a waste of time? Maybe after that conversation, she went home and worked on one of her stories. Or decided to try again to make a skirt. Or revisited the math homework she had said she found difficult.

I hugged her. No, not a waste at all.

 

 

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An Unexpected Delight: Hobbit Cookery

“I don’t think he knows about second breakfast, Pip.”  Meriadoc Brandybuck

My father and I read The Hobbit, by J.R.R.Tolkienwhen I was twelve. We shared the same copy of the book; he would read when he had time and I tried not to finish it before he did. We had wonderful conversations about hobbits and wizards, moving on to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy the next year. He bought us a strategy game based on the books that we would only play when we had hours to spend mobilizing armies to defeat each other. He wished he could find a chess set that used the characters as game pieces.

One thing we never did was try to eat like hobbits. My father was a very adventurous cook and once made a traditional plum pudding with hard sauce that took 12 hours. If we had had Chris-Rachael Oseland’s new book, An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery, we would surely have tried out the recipes to accompany our games.

Hobbit Cookbook Cover
Available this holiday season

Ms. Oseland demonstrates deep love and respect for the world Tolkien created. The Shire was based upon Tolkien’s memories of his childhood in the English countryside and these recipes reflect that specific period and place. There is butter, but no chocolate. Potatoes, but no rice. Pastries, hearty stews, and lots and lots of delicious mushrooms. This is comfort food, not health food.

Each of the book’s chapters is dedicated to a particular hobbit meal — breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses — and contains a discussion of what types of food would properly be served for each. The pictures are gorgeous and Ms. Oseland’s easy style makes even the most intimidating recipes approachable.

I tried out the hand pies, both mushroom and apple. Found in the “Second Breakfast” chapter, these are sturdy little pies that do not fall apart after being knocked around in a bag all morning. I was quite surprised when I unwrapped my lunch and found the pies intact, even though the recipe notes made it clear that that was the intent. I had been a bit skeptical about using only the spices that would have been available in the 1890s English countryside, but the mushroom pie was well-spiced and very flavorful. I was glad the recipe made more than one. A small quibble: I had to bake my pies longer than the recommended 20-25 minutes. That just meant I had to wait a little longer to taste them.

There is something for almost everyone in this book, and Ms. Oseland includes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options for modern sensibilities. This is a beautiful book, exactly what you need for your next Tolkien-inspired gathering.

Available in December. Pre-order An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery here.

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Midnight Run

The sound of quick footsteps woke me up. I looked around, listened. My husband was sleeping next to me. I hadn’t heard the bathroom door, but maybe one of the kids had gotten up and was headed back to bed. I waited. I didn’t hear anything else and almost drifted back to sleep.

Almost.

I heard it again. This was definitely not the skittering of squirrels or the agitated flapping of a bird that had squeezed into the vent stack and was trying to get out.  It was definitely footsteps. They were heavy, like a person walking, and the sound was coming from over my head, on the roof. They stopped and I waited to hear if there would be more. There. Another step.

I woke my husband. “There’s someone walking on the roof!” I whispered, as if whoever was up there could hear me. He listened, groggy, and was barely awake when we heard more steps. I gestured frantically at the roof. Suppose whoever was up there was planning to break in through the upstairs back windows, all of which were in our son’s room.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked. Do? I wanted him to be as alert as I was, ready to rescue the kids at the first sound of breaking glass. I wanted him to be as agitated as I was, waiting for something to happen. I wanted him to grab a weapon, which in this case would have been no more fearsome than a coat hanger or a shoe. How could he still be sleepy when an entire gang of bandits was surely massing for an assault on our house?

I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t answer at all.

The steps were moving away, toward our neighbor’s roof. These old rowhouses are solidly built, but in the night’s stillness I heard commotion next door. My neighbor was up, disturbed by the footsteps. Then there was quiet. My husband was asleep again. I laid there in the dark, trying to relax, but instead going over every single horrible thing that could have happened, and how incredibly unprepared we were. Our neighborhood is pretty safe. We lock our doors, of course, but we don’t set our alarm at night. There was nothing upstairs to use as a weapon. And I was apparently the only person who would hear anything.

Leaving in the morning to take my well-rested children to school, I saw our neighbor. “Did you hear those footsteps last night?” I asked him.

“Yes. They were on our roof for a long time, then they went to yours. When they came back I went up there to see what was going on. It was two raccoons.”

Raccoons? With such heavy footfalls? I couldn’t even feel silly. I was just relieved, silently thanking God that this time the danger was not real and praying that it never would be.