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patcoopshenickSo, things have gotten a little bit busy at our house. Several months ago a young man (we’ll call him Boy 2) came to stay with us for a bit. It turned out to be a happy arrangement so we formalized things–he has a room. The Boy has something he’s always wanted–a brother. I also have something I’ve always wanted–a second son. The two big boys take care of the house and laundry. We all share the cooking. The boys hang out and play video games when The Boy isn’t frantically studying to finish off his college classes (he’s finishing his AS and will be within two quarters of his BS at the end of this term). All three of us are big chatters, and love to take our journals to the coffee shop, sit, drink coffee-like beverages, and write. It’s very good.

So that’s been several months now. Then in December we grew again. This particular growth spurt was a long time coming. To really understand this we have to go way, way back to when I was in junior high, so a long, long time ago. One of my oldest sisters’ friends had a couple kids–a toddler and a four-month-old. What with one thing and another, the little ones spent a lot of time at our house. We watched them grow up. We did our best, but sometimes we let them down. And then we lost contact. I always felt bad about that.

Fast forward almost forty years, and that four-month-old baby had turned into a man, and that man called me one day. He wanted to introduce his fiance to me. They came up. We had coffee. I had a chance to apologize for my part in the “letting them down” end of things. Brent (we’ll call him that because that’s not his name) brushed my apology off. I still felt bad, but he was so very gracious about it. It was nice. It was healing. It was re-establishing an old, old connection that had meant a lot to me.

Fast forward to about five years ago. I reconnected with a friend of mine. She has a son who, what with one thing and another, didn’t have many friends his own age. The Boy and I decided that we could help with that. My friend’s son started coming over. We made it a point to invite some of The Boy’s friends (who are good, kind, and inclusive people) over. For five years now, our living room has been filling up with boys-now-young-men, playing games, shouting, and laughing. My part is buying pizza or making chili and fresh bread and cinnamon rolls. My friend’s son has friends his own age now.

Fast forward again to last December. I got another call. Brent now had a toddler and a tiny baby of his own, and he and his wife really wanted to go out for New Year’s Eve. And so we came full circle. He and his wife showed up at my door with their two little ones, a couple diaper bags, and a list of instructions. And then they left for the evening, leaving their children with us.

I was awed and terrified that they were entrusting their children to us (after all, we had let Brent down when he was little). Also, I was terrified because, hey, high-energy toddler and newborn baby. Let’s just say that those lovable little guys put us through our paces. The Big Little Boy loved the Big Boys and they loved him. They played video games, and catch, and all sorts of toddler-delighting games. They fed him. They got him ready for bed. Then all three of them slept in the living room (big boys on the couches, big little boy curled up on our enormous plush bean bag chair).

While this wild and rowdy lovefest was going on in the living room, the baby and I were trying to figure things out. It turned out that his mom had been breast-feeding him (Yay, Mom!), something I am no longer equipped for. We struggled with the bottle. I struggled with the finer points of diapering. Eventually we all went to bed, at which time I discovered that that tiny baby had apparently been warehousing pee since birth. That little guy peed through eight blankets that night. And then, in the morning, as I was exhaustedly giving him his breakfast bottle, he suddenly opened his eyes and looked at me. I looked at him. He drank his bottle. And I remembered what it was that I loved about being a mom–it’s that silent, loving, curious, powerful bond.

His parents slept in, picked up the little boys, and drove home. I changed my bed (that little guy could really pee), and then all three of us big people went to bed and slept all afternoon.

A couple weeks ago the little guys came for another visit. If our first visit had a steep learning curve, it all paid off. The Big Little Guy and the Big Boys knew the moves. That little high-energy toddler was a lot more comfortable. More listening happened. The Boy pretty much managed things–he kept the Big Little Guy entertained and fed. By 7:30 the Big Little Boy was asleep.

The baby and I got along great. I remembered how to put a diaper on. The baby had switched from boob to bottle. He’d graduated to sleeping in four-hour shifts, starting at about 6:30pm. He’s a peaceful baby, so when he woke up I could give him a bottle, burp and change him and tuck him back in before he ever really woke up. I had the moves back. The baby appreciated that–he smiled, laughed and kicked when morning came. When Brent and his wife showed up this time they brought a spare bag of diapers. That’s a good sign.

Our little house is full, sometimes bulging. It’s a happy house, a house where people can put their feet up, where we can find room for everybody. When The Boy was little he worried a lot that, since we didn’t have a dad in the house, we weren’t a real family. He doesn’t worry about that anymore. Our family–the family we’ve built, is as real as it gets.

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True Confession: I’ve had Brenda Peterson’s book Duck and Cover! on my Kindle for months–actually, I had the book before I had the Kindle. She gave me a Kindle copy as a “thank you” for tweaking her book cover a bit. So I had the book and for some reason I just never got it opened. Well, I finally did this afternoon as I was waiting for The Boy to drag himself out of the weight room after his “Burst and Explode” or some such thing training–it’s supposed to keep him toned and ready for football practice this summer, which will keep him toned and ready for the football season, which is a mere–what?–ten months away? ish? Around here we take our football very, very seriously, even though we win surprisingly seldom for all the work we put into it.

Anyhow, there I am outside the weight room with only my Kindle for company, and I’m housecleaning on it, taking off the read books, and the moron tests The Boy loaded on and insisted I take (I failed both of them), and wondering what I should read next when there, buried behind the second moron test, was Duck and Cover!

It seemed appropriate after the weekend we just had–snow and freezing rain enough to shut down school for two days–so I opened it up and by the bottom of the first page I was remembering why I loved I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth, the first book of Peterson’s that I read. It’s her voice. Her writer’s voice, I mean.

She writes lovely, tight, evocative prose full of hidden shadows and deft humor that grows not out of facile word plays but out of idea plays. And she can capture a character in dialog like nobody’s business. Take, for example, her comment that the Virgin Mary was merely “God’s vehicle” to get Jesus into the world. The speaker then goes on to note that she considers her own red Dart God’s vehicle as well, but she certainly doesn’t get all offended if someone speaks of it in disrespectful terms.

There’s more. There’s much, much more, and I’m only into the third chapter. If you love good writing, read Brenda Peterson. Start with Duck and Cover! You can get it here. I’ll do a full review later, but you should go grab a copy of your own. You really, really should.

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So have you made it yet? Have you noticed that this chili has–ahem–no chili powder in it unless you tempt fate and deviate from the recipe? It took me years to realize that “real” chili contains chili powder, and even when someone told me I didn’t believe it. For me chili was Grandma’s chili, and it was made of more than just beef, tomato in several glorious variants, onions, black pepper, and (if someone other than me was making it) kidney beans.

Chili was driving from Oregon to Wisconsin in December, feet freezing, car windows frosted inside and out. Chili was turning onto Grandma and Grandpa’s street just as the night was closing in, and seeing their lights golden in the deepening shadows. It was opening their squeaky screen door and stepping up to the little landing where you had to make up your mind if you were going down into the earthen-floored cellar for a Coke, or on up the steps into Grandma’s exuberant hug. I always went up the steps.

Grandma grabbed us, squeezed us, gave us big smacking kisses and told us how happy she was we were there. And behind her I would see her deep pan, steaming gently, and smell the chili bubbling away.

Suitcases came inside and went directly upstairs and out of Grandma’s way in our bedrooms. And then we came back down to the kitchen and there were the Melmac bowls ladled full of chili, and the sesame-topped Italian bread Grandpa favored, and Grandpa himself, in his green workpants and t-shirt, saying, “Well, well, well, look who’s here?”

And I would open my arms to hug him and he’d say, “Careful, I ain’t showered yet,” and I hugged him anyway, smelling of sweat and Christmas trees from the nursery where he sold wreaths. And then I took my bowl of chili, and my slice of bread, and walked into the TV room where my cousins already sat with their bowls, and we talked, and laughed, and watched whatever we could get on Grandma’s TV, and that was the beginning of Christmas.

Just double-click on the graphic to download your recipe.

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Christmas is upon us. At least, it’s close enough that we can smell its rank and fetid breath. I love Christmas. I really do. I love Christmas carols. I host Christmas in July every year. I love the idea of a fresh start in the dead of winter, the idea that Christmas reminds us that the most precious of all things are seldom those things we receive, but those things for which we hope beyond the point where hope is reasonable.

But…

Christmas is not a season for ‘buts.’ It’s a season for mindless optimism and giddy assumptions. It’s a time for tinsel, for foolish philanthropy, for tipsiness if you’re inclined that way, for sober rejoicing if you’re not. Christmas is about abundance, about overflowing tables, trees teetering in the centers of Everests of gaudy packages. Christmas is cinnamon, and sugar, and nutmeg, and hot chocolate, and standing in the snow in warm boots and a scarf and staring at the lights on the house.

Christmas is about overdoing it–eating too much, traveling too far, spending too much, and too much time spent with too many relatives.

But.

But this year, like lots of people, my sisters and I have had to rethink Christmas. We all own businesses that provide services. We don’t have bosses; we have clients. Economic climates like the current one tend to send clients scurrying for shelter. For the first time, we sat down and cold-bloodedly decided to not give each others’ kids Christmas presents. This was neither easy nor comfortable. Over the years life has taught us that warm, loving bonds are to be treasured and celebrated. It felt wrong not to give the kids anything.

But.

Wrong or right has little meaning at the bank, or the grocery store, or the IRS. It took me about five minutes to realize that this year, if I wanted to show my love for my family, I was going to have to do it in some way other than whipping out my checkbook.

And so I resorted to that old standby that everyone always claims to believe, but few have the nerve to actually put into practice. I’m making my sisters’ children a gift. To be precise, I’m making them a recipe book, filled with the chili Grandma made when we visited for Christmas, my father’s fudge recipe, my mother’s cheese cake and vegetarian casseroles, my sister’s potato soup, four recipes for potato salad, my nephews’ barbecue recipes and chicken enchiladas recipes, and on and on.

Gathering the recipes has reminded me that families like ours mark our history with food. As my mom, my sisters and I decided what should go in (everything we could think of) we found ourselves asking each other, “Do you remember when…?” I’ve realized that this is more than a recipe book; it’s a code to our family history. It’s the literal trail of bread crumbs, leading from who we were to who we are. Why, for instance, are there so many potato recipes? Specifically, why do we need four recipes for potato salad? And a recipe for potato pancakes? And a recipe for potato candy? Why do we have a recipe for chowder that goes down well with chemo patients as well as one for healthy people? Why are there a few Vietnamese recipes in a German family’s cookbook?

The book is our code, as integral to us as our DNA. We are what we have eaten. This year I am giving the children in my family the key to the code–starting with Grandma’s chili recipe.

Want this recipe for your very own?
Double-click on the image and you’ll get a downloadable pdf.
Happy holidays!

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