“It’s Just Lipton’s”

Young friends have a baby due soon. At their shower, I watched the mom-to-be unwrap soft blue outfits that made the room go, “Aww.” On still evenings this summer, I sat outside with the dad, talking about how life is about to change.

Now it’s time to start planning the dinner I’ll make for them. I have a signature dish for celebration and a different one for grief. I’m big on making food no matter what, a product of my upbringing. I grew up believing that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Apparently, I internalized that aphorism more seriously than my grandmother’s warning about giving away the milk for free.

For a new baby’s arrival, I usually go with Chicken Tarragon Crepes. It’s fancy but mild. It’s showy, but it’s only chicken, so how fancy can it be? I chop the tarragon and make the crepes from scratch. I blend the cream sauce—making sure it doesn’t curdle—thinking about the new mother and father in that space of wonder and trepidation that new life brings.

It’s something I do well. But as much as I love to cook for other people, I grew into the role shakily. There was a time my cooking could be almost scary.

In college I lived in an enormous off-campus Victorian that had been cut up into student housing. I had an apartment on the ground floor. The young men who rented the single rooms upstairs were poor and always in need of a good meal. Senior year, I began to fancy myself as the resident “First Lady of the Boarding House” and decided to give my very first dinner party. I hope I didn’t actually call it that because it was five starving college guys who were happy to be shoveling almost anything into their mouths at my kitchen table, which was about two feet from the stove and sink.

I bought a cookbook from the bargain bin at a drug store and trusted the author to guide me. I found a recipe for beef stew, something that sounded hearty and satisfying. I followed it word for word, the way a Fundamentalist might interpret the Book of Leviticus. I trusted every syllable. How hard could it be? The recipe told me to add ¼ cup of cloves to the beef and the vegetables. I did.

As the stew simmered on the stove, all those cloves made my apartment smell like what you’d think Thanksgiving in a Currier and Ives painting might smell like, but somehow it didn’t concern me. By the time my guests arrived, the clove smell was burning the inside of my nostrils. Still, it was food and they were game.

First bite. Up went their napkins to their mouths. There was coughing. Our tongues burned for days.

Years passed and I got better. Maybe a little cocky. So much so that I planned an elaborate Chinese dinner for my boyfriend. We had spent most of the summer apart, and this was to celebrate his homecoming. He had lived in Manhattan and had stories of “real” Chinese dishes he loved, so I had a goal. I did my research. I bought a wok and a rice steamer and got up to speed on ginger and hoisin sauce. The day of his arrival came, and I was in the kitchen chopping carrots and bok choy and picturing how impressed he would be.

The recipe called for four cloves of garlic. Somehow, I’d lived for 23 years thinking that a head of garlic was just another name for a clove of garlic, and in the pre-Google era, I was on my own. It took an hour to chop four heads of garlic, but somehow this didn’t alarm me. You can sort of picture the rest of the evening.

I don’t do stuff like that anymore. I’ve learned how to read recipes. I’ve learned to taste my food as I go. I’m a solid cook, a poised cook, sometimes an adventurous one.
But for all the great food in celebration that I’ve given and received, it’s a simple Mason jar full of hot soup—in grief—that is my strongest food memory. In January 1978, my brother, Rob, died suddenly. He was 26. My parents were out of their minds with grief. Lots of friends and family filled up the house, and it seemed everyone was talking, but nothing was registering.

The doorbell rang. It was our friend and neighbor, Joan, from across the street. It was the first time she and my mother had seen each other since the police officer had come to my parents’ door and opened his horrible, sad speech by telling them both to sit down. I don’t remember what Joan said, but I remember this: She handed my mother a Mason jar of soup across the front stoop. My mother was thanking her profusely. Joan smiled and said, “It’s just Lipton’s. I wanted to make sure you had something hot tonight.”

Sometime in the coming weeks, I’ll probably opt for the chicken tarragon crepes for my young friends when their baby boy is born. Lucky for this couple, there will be no cloves or garlic. But just like Joan’s gift on that freezing night so long ago, it won’t matter if it’s fancy and took hours, or if it’s “just Lipton’s.” I’ll want to make sure they have something hot. That’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters.

Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring

I haven’t written in over a year. A few times lately, I see someone I know in a store or on the street (or even, once, at a friend’s wake) and that kind person will say, “I haven’t read anything from you lately.” I usually come up with the same response, which is pretty weak because my honest reaction is that the person is just being nice or wanting to soothe a writer’s fragile ego.

I most often say: “I ran out of things to say.” I guess I’m looking for a quick laugh, and usually I get one. But now after a year of not seeing my name in print, I feel little phrases or sentences forming when I least suspect it. I think: “I need to remember that. That’s not bad.” So maybe I haven’t run out of things to say after all.

This brings me to last Sunday.

A neighbor emailed. She had agreed to canvass for a political candidate we both believe in. She hadn’t exactly planned it; it just sort of happened. Would I go with her because if we went together it might not feel so terrifying? I said I would, and then spent three days picturing the angry people we’d meet—called away from their lunch or their televisions—slamming front doors in our faces. But for more than a year I’d been talking about the demise of the world as I saw it, and I thought maybe I’d feel better if I did something. (Yes, it’s all about me.)

On the designated day, it rained. Poured. All morning. The candidate sent out a group email saying that usually on a day like today, everyone would stay in the headquarters and make calls. But we couldn’t waste a day this close to the election. The last line said something like, “Grab your umbrellas and let’s make this happen.” I checked the temperature. It was cold. I convinced myself that people my age shouldn’t be walking out in the rain for hours. I convinced myself that life would go on without my contribution. I convinced myself that my neighbor would forgive me.

I bailed. But I promised the candidate I’d be there next week. And I was.

The local Democratic headquarters was full of signs and young people. I saw phone banks but no one sitting at them, so I ran right for my comfort zone, trying to sell the woman in charge that “I’d be really good at making calls.” I don’t remember if her answer was “Nonsense,” or “No, no, no, no,” or “Oh, please,” but she cut me off with a comment about the sensational weather and that they needed everyone to canvas.

She meant business. Within a minute or two, I had signed in and was being paired with a young man who was already scanning a map of the neighborhood we’d been assigned. As we got into my car together, I was relieved that he had done this before but a little shocked at how quickly I was now sitting in traffic with a complete stranger on our way to letting other strangers be rude to us at their front doors. Although I was rattled and thinking I was in way over my head, he calmed me. I asked him about his unusual first name, and he told me he is an immigrant. I asked him how long he’d been out canvassing. Since March.

The day was full of surprises. For one thing, it was hotter and more humid than I’d predicated and early on I regretted not packing something to drink. Yes, we were waved off a few times. Yes, we knew people were really home when they heard the bell but pretended they weren’t. But there was the young man in a Metallica shirt who listened intently and asked great questions. And the funny woman who petted her dog while she tried to give us some advice about what we were up against in her neighborhood. And the 89-old man who came out onto his stoop to talk and knew more about the issues than I did and—after a long and spirited discussion of the candidates—said, as he looked at my flushed face, “Let me go get you a bottle of water.”

I was conscious after a couple of hours that I was probably slowing my partner down. He kept telling me how much better it was to do this with another person. (And unsaid: “even if she’s red-faced and a little out of breath on the hills.”)

Here’s what I was left with, words that have been floating around my head since last Sunday. Words that got me to my desk this morning to write something after a solid year of no words. My favorite Leonard Cohen:

“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in”

I rang some bells. On a Sunday. For a few hours. Trying like hell to be just that tiniest sliver of light in a bleak time. Maybe that’s what you’re being called to do, too.

Go.

When Mama is Nana

This piece was published on the Parent.co Web site this week. It’s a piece I love: 

Last fall, my friend spent Tuesdays in a utilitarian meeting room, sitting on a folding chair. The bad part was that “experts” expounded on topics like bonding, sleep patterns, and infant milestones, information she didn’t need since she had already ushered her own children into adulthood. The good part was the other grandmothers in the class, who told each other their stories. Tuesdays also brought paperwork and state mandates and social work regulations. Her new normal—the one she never saw coming—had just landed in her lap.

When her grandchild was born and it was clear the birth-parents could not be the caregivers, my friend— quietly at first—began with texts to the baby’s temporary foster parents in another state. She relished the photos. She would comment on “the sweetest little hands,” which, the next month, turned into “the cutest smile ever.” She sent books and clothes and every age-appropriate toy she could find.

It made sense that she’d be invested in giving this baby the best start she could. After all, she was the baby’s grandmother. I figured her role would be filling in the gaps until “real parents” could be found as soon as the Court ruled the adoption could go forward. Then, I thought, the social worker would consult the list of couples yearning for a baby, and a whole new family—a young family—would be created, and those parents would take over.

I was fooled. Partly because my friend carefully skirted the issue of the baby’s future, and because she’d indulge me in phone conversations that began with my saying things like, “I know this is sad, but there’s a young couple somewhere, just aching to have a baby and soon they’ll have one!” Looking back, only now do I remember her soft silences in response to my enthusiasm. She was probably averting her eyes, too, but I couldn’t see that.

I believed that in her life—as in mine—it would be unthinkable to dive back into the grinding mechanics of caring for an infant 24 hours a day. Much less summoning the reflexes to prevent a 3-year-old from darting into traffic. Or sitting—albeit proudly—in the audience at your kid’s high school graduation when you’re in your 80s.

When she finally told me she was beginning adoption proceedings, I told her all the reasons she was making a terrible, immutable mistake. I warned her that once the baby arrived in her home, no matter how difficult the going got, she would never be able to turn back to her old life—her sane, comfortable, predictable life—with me as her sane, comfortable, predictable friend. “How fair is that?” I asked. Not to her and not to her grandchild. Not when there were prospective (young) parents, waiting so hopefully in the wings.

She approached my logic with statistics, about the numbers of babies who have been rescued by willing grandparents, 2.7 million nationwide. About her distrust of the system the baby would be thrown into, even for a short time, and the damage that could be done. Then she refuted my logic with emotion. The term “grandfamilies” has entered the lexicon. The baby was part of her extended family. The baby was her family.

Her mind was made up, and I was left to look at what my rational arguments said about me. I wanted our two lives to stay on the intended arc we envisioned together, the continuation of everything we’d shared. We always had each other as we parented our young children. Then came the teenagers and the college years. We hosted weddings, then baby showers. Now we were supposed to be free to go out to lunch, learn to play golf, discuss politics, or gossip idly without any interruptions. What about our bucket lists?

It turns out her baby loves eating in restaurants. Watching people go by. Sampling new foods. Playing peek-a-boo with the waiter. I look at my friend, enveloped in all of it. She’ll be called “Nana,” she tells me. The baby is beautiful.

There are all kinds of bucket lists.

 

What Writers Do, Even After a Bad Day

This was just published in The Sunlight Press, in its Artists on Craft Series. For anyone wondering what writers do…
Every year, on January 1st as my friends make their resolutions about losing weight or achieving world peace, I start to dig into my writing. Then February comes, and I feel the need to restart. If I’m honest, I seem to restart once a month or so.

This year is no exception, and my goal of getting at least two pieces out a day is my summer plan. I fashioned a spreadsheet to keep track of my submissions. It is color-coded. Green when I submit; gray if it gets rejected; a brilliant fuchsia when something sells. I get really detailed in the fuchsia spaces, sometimes pasting in the editor’s email, sometimes just letting exclamation marks fly to show myself how delighted I am in my talent. Of course luck and timing play equal parts in the equation, and my spreadsheet bears witness to this, too.

Setting my goal at two pieces a day can seem daunting, even on a morning when I’m raring to go. But I also consider a revision (after a rejection) to count as “a piece.” I write personal essays—stories about my own life—that often merge into the areas of motherhood, education, or family. Rereading one of my essays that has been rejected, I often see where I went wrong. What did I mean to say? Is the reader likely to misunderstand my humor? Is this a piece that just doesn’t go anywhere? It’s amazing how much better writing can get after I’ve gotten a polite “No thanks” from an editor.
I get up insanely early and write for four hours straight. Then during the day, I check my email constantly, hoping to see a first line that says more than: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

For me, writing is as much part of my daily routine as talking to my kids, taking a walk, watching the news in the evening. Still, I seldom write on weekends, and that leads to more energy for Monday morning. For me, early in the morning is my most productive time for getting the words right. To make writing a real and lasting part of your life it makes sense to figure out your own personal rhythm and adjust your creativity to it, not the other way around.

And, of course, you have to be ready for the inevitable bumps that will come your way. Late into the afternoon recently, in the span of five minutes, this is what landed in my inbox:

A terrific website that was considering serializing my memoir got back to me. The editor began with: “I love the stories — I think they’re soulful and honest and funny, beautifully written,” but I’d already scanned down to the last line, which stood alone like a sad little kid left out of a birthday party. “My apologies.”

Two minutes later, another email rejection, full of my least favorite editor-speak: “Thank you for your submission. We’re going to respectfully decline to run it.” Here’s how I translate this one: There will never be a time we will consider your writing, which is just awful, by the way. As you can tell by my tone, which is meant to put as much distance between us as I can humanly muster, do not darken our inbox again.

I had a half-hour reprieve while I reminded myself about that third-place win in the short story contest in 6th grade. Then *bing* an email from my best friend, who helps me edit and shape my words and does it very well. She sent back a draft I had asked her to look over. Her first words: “Hmmm . . . I don’t know about this one.” She went on to give her reasons. They were abundant.

It was a trifecta fail of a writing day. I ate dinner and turned on the news, which, I figured couldn’t be more depressing than my last 12 hours. I slept well. Early this morning when my cat started walking on top of me to remind me it was time for him to eat, I was ready to dive back in and see if there were any emails from nocturnal editors about recent submissions.

 

About The Author

Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based freelancer who writes about family, education, and motherhood. She has been published in Newsweek, The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Parenting Magazine and others. She has recently completed a Memoir, “I Haven’t Got all Day,” and is represented by The Rudy Agency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Are You Looking Up Here?

It took a few years for Uncle Tom to remodel his kitchen. Maybe it was only months (life moved more slowly when I was a kid), but every time we’d visit, there was a tarp hanging somewhere or an open bucket of paint on the floor. Toward the end of the project, the only part that remained in flux was a 3 ft. by 8 ft. space between the top of the Formica cabinets and the ceiling.

My uncle and aunt were unsure what color to paint it, so that space remained naked for months. After a while, in some late night creativity he was known for, Uncle Tom took a thick black marker and wrote on the plaster: “WHY ARE YOU LOOKING UP HERE?”

In my house, that space would have been painted green or yellow an hour after the plaster dried. My parents were more, shall we say, sticklers for the details. I decided I wanted to grow up to be jaunty—like my uncle—to worry less about the way things looked. His house might be a mess (it was always a mess), but who cared when I had so much fun, sitting around the table playing board games with my cousin or helping my aunt make cookies.

By the time I married, had kids, and settled into our first home, I’d succeeded in only half of Uncle Tom’s legacy: I turned out to be a terrible housekeeper. But instead of adopting a C’est la vie attitude like his, I spent precious time wallowing in guilt. The disorganization, the dust balls that emerged from under furniture when the kids ran by, the constant sad state of the bathroom. I could pull plastic containers from the back of the refrigerator and even if there had been a cash prize waiting, could not have identified the contents. Uncle Tom would have giggled at this, maybe made it his opening salvo as company arrived. He might have created a contest for who could name what it used to be. Not me.

Worse than that, I became a first-class phony as soon as I knew company was coming. I’d begin to scrub everything in a days-long attack that bordered on a Silkwood shower for a house. Once this onslaught started, my kids would always chime in: “Who’s coming over?” I’d pretend it was mere coincidence that we were having a dinner party for eight and that I was arranging the cleaning supplies under the sink in alphabetical order.

They didn’t buy it, of course, but I just wasn’t able to let guests see the “real” us. I would think of my uncle often while vacuuming behind furniture or mopping the kitchen floor on my hands and knees hours before that doorbell rang. And as I wiped down every spice in my cabinet or went on a search for the last crumb in the living room, I’d ask myself Why? Would my company think less of me? Refuse to eat? Leave?

My memories of Uncle Tom’s house are the memories I want my guests to come away with. His home had a rosy glow, dust balls and all. No one ever looked for stains on the family room carpet. Or checked the bathroom for grime behind the toilet. I remember games of Spoons and laughing until I couldn’t catch my breath. I remember moments that defined a family. That’s the home I want.

Company is coming tomorrow. There’s something in the refrigerator I can’t identify. I’m not moving it.

Even for homeschoolers, there is no happily ever after

My job was to answer call-in questions that homeschooling parents had. Our company wrote the curriculum, so we were supposed to have all the answers. Math questions outnumbered all others, and I did my best with the Pythagorean Theorem, which was a knot in everyone’s stomach. After a few years on the job, there was nothing I hadn’t heard.

Then I got the call.

“Hello,” the homeschooling mother said in a sweet voice. “I have an 8th grade student using your curriculum, and we have a big problem.”

Even though I feared she was going in the direction of linear functions, which made me sweat a little, I assured her I could help.

“Well,” she began, “The Diary of Anne Frank is part of her literature course.”

“Right,” I said, relieved at a literature question, which I knew I could answer easily, even before my second cup of coffee. “How can I help?”

“Well,” she said—now letting some exasperation rise in her voice—I refuse to let my daughter read this book.’ She paused for a few beats, during which I had no idea what her reason was going to be. Then this: “I only let her read stories with happy endings.”

I knew enough about homeschooling to understand that some parents (not all) homeschool their children precisely to keep them inside their own comfort zones. After all, the world can be scary and unpredictable. All parents crave safety for their kids, and keeping highly edited lessons confined to the kitchen table gives some of them control over what their children are exposed to.

It’s one way to go.

It wasn’t the way I chose with my own public-schooled kids, but there were days I wanted to adopt that course of action and just keep my kids from ever finding out how cruel and rotten the world can be. The first time I took my sons and daughter to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I spent the entire afternoon rethinking my decision. Was it too much? Why did I think they needed to see—much less understand—the blackness that can descend on people’s souls?

I grappled with those questions and often felt envious of the homeschool crowd for not having to make the decisions I was making about my kids’ exposure to this imperfect and hopelessly flawed world of ours. In the end, I chose to tell them. Because it’s the truth, and the truth happened. It happened when my parents tried to explain to me why I was watching people in Birmingham getting hosed down and attacked by police dogs during Civil Rights protests. It did at the World Trade Center. It did at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

As parents, it’s our right to shield our children from anything we choose. I didn’t want my kids to be blindsided by the truth—that sometimes there is no happily ever after—that would arrive someday no matter what I tried to shield them from. And I didn’t want that realization to rear its head when I was no longer there to catch them.

For me, my thinking found its permanent home when my daughter, the youngest of my three, was about four and we were watching a TV show fictionalizing colonial America. In one scene, a slave mother was being sold away from her child, a little girl about my daughter’s age. I considered turning it off, as much for me as for her. It was wrenching—the mother pleading, the slave owner ambivalent, the child terrified.

My daughter turned to me and asked, “Did that happen in real life?”

“Yes,” I said.

She thought for a second or two and came up with her own answer, completely logical to her four-year-old sensibilities. “Well, I don’t think it really did.”

I understood her self-made reasoning. She yearned for that same protective shelter that lures lots of us parents, too. That quest for happily ever after. And I didn’t want to tell her the truth that night. But I did.

A Letter to my Neighbor’s Hit-and-Run Driver

Here’s the good news: He lived.

Here’s the bad news: You kept going and got away with it.

Here’s what happened after you sped away: A woman on the way to her post office job saw Tom’s bike on the side of the road. Alarmed, she got out of her car and found him. She called 911. He was airlifted to Christiana Medical Center.

 

Maybe by the next day your hands had stopped shaking. Maybe you confided in someone who has been able to keep your secret.

I’ve always wondered what happened to you after you did this. Did you turn on the news as soon as you got home? Look through the newspaper for days to see if you’d killed the cyclist? Maybe you found the police report and saw that his name was Tom and that he was 38; undoubtedly, you were relieved when it listed the operator and the vehicle as “unknown.”

There are many bad things that have tested Tom and his family since that morning on the side of the road. They are all because of you and what you chose to do. But good has also sprung from what you did, and those things happened in spite of you. You should know all of it.

There were multiple surgeries, and hospital and rehab stays, physical therapy and extensive pain management for Tom well into that fall. There were medical setbacks and more surgeries. He could have died from a resulting staph infection. In the early weeks, I watched the worried faces of his family as they took turns sitting with him and helping him endure months of pain. I listened to his youngest child — who was only three — try to process it all, when she couldn’t begin to understand what had thrown her family into such chaos.

Maybe it’s even more important that you know the good things that have happened. I found that I live in a neighborhood of caring souls who also possess substantial organizational skills. People took turns bringing dinner over and setting up playdates for the two younger kids. The lawn got mowed regularly, and the other life chores that had become burdensome simply got done by others, sometimes anonymously. Along with the struggles, the resilience of a family and the pure goodness of a community got to be in the spotlight. And I will always drive country roads more cautiously, on the lookout for cyclists who may be right around the corner.

Last month, Tom developed an infection at the site of the metal apparatus that was installed to keep his spine straight. He endured more surgery and will need more recuperation time. More worry for his family and a reminder that they may never truly get past that moment your car came up behind him and then drove away.

Maybe by now you’re sure no one will ever find out what you did. Maybe you only think about July 16, 2013, once in a while. When those memories surface, maybe you’re able to wipe them away, only to have them appear in your dreams.

Hit-and-run drivers like you leave so many questions. But there are answers, too. Here they are: After all he’s been through, Tom will heal. And as long as you keep your terrible secret, you never will.