Bowls of comfort

To feel safe and warm on a cold wet night, all you really need is soup.” — Laurie Colwin

As my closest friends will tell you, I’m your go-to gal if you need a good soup recipe. Come fall, there’s usually something simmering in my slow cooker or on the stove — thick-as-a-brick pea soup, creamy potato porridge, or maybe a savory minestrone.

It’s methodical but soothing, the whole process of making soup.

I begin with fresh produce from the market, then I gather the right combo of herbs and spices from the garden or the pantry. From the moment I start chopping onions and garlic, every muscle and nerve in my body begins to loosen or unwind. Sauteing the vegetables on the stove, I think about the people who’ll receive the first helping when my soup is finished and the flavor has mellowed.

Soup can be a meal by itself — especially if it’s a hearty recipe with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. I’ll often order soup as my main course in restaurants, and have been known to serve it as an entree at casual company meals. Even the pickiest kid who doesn’t eat veggies will make an exception for vegetable soup laced with alphabet pasta.

The way I see it, soup is a remedy for nearly everything.  It’s guaranteed to speed the recovery of a neighbor who’s nursing a broken heart or the common cold. It fortifies the dear friend who’s just returned from her second hip-replacement surgery. Homemade soup has a language all its own, and it’s one of the kindest ways to express sympathy to grieving families who’ve lost loved ones. And sometimes, when words fail, it also works to convey love and appreciation.

Cooking for my mother, for instance, has become a form of communication — especially now that her dementia is complicated by a serious hearing loss. Even with her hearing aids in place, she struggles to hold a conversation. Living by herself in a condo, she doesn’t nurture herself the way she nurtured her own family many years ago. So I try to bring her a pot of homemade soup at least once a week.  Nourishing the woman who used to nourish me helps to fill a hollow ache inside me, too. I can’t change Mom’s diagnosis, or slow the sad progression of her disease, but I can make soup.

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The way I see it, soup is a remedy for nearly everything.

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Of course, the soup I make for myself never tastes as delicious as the soup from someone else’s kitchen.

So when I’m feeling cranky or blue or sorry for myself, it’s time to head over to Niki’s, my favorite local diner here in Royal Oak. At Niki’s, the soup is always homemade — the perfect prelude to my favorite Greek salad.  I’ve known Donna, the owner and cook, for so many years that I’ve lost count of all the gloomy winter afternoons I spent hunkered down in her back-corner booth with my notebook and a pending column deadline. Those afternoons were totally redeemed by Donna’s chicken noodle, spinach-tortellini, or cabbage soups.

I like to remind Donna that she makes the best soup in town, and that I’ll always be her biggest fan. (Gotta keep that soup on the burner at Niki’s, especially with the long winter ahead!) But what I really want to tell Donna is something I couldn’t put into words until I started writing about soup this morning. When we’re in need of a little mothering — but our own moms are no longer able to provide it — we need at least one Donna in our lives. We all need someone who will ladle something warm, delicious, and comforting into our bowls.

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My favorite slow-cooker pea soup recipe:

16-oz package of Spartan (brand) green split peas

6 cups of water

1 large onion, chopped

5 or 6 small potatoes, peeled and sliced

4 cloves fresh crushed garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup sliced carrots

1 cup chopped celery

Use a large slow cooker; set it on high. Add the six cups of water. Rinse the split peas, then add to the water. Chop the onion and saute in olive oil with dried oregano and crushed garlic until onions are translucent and slightly brown.  Add the cooked onions/garlic to the slow cooker and stir; add the remaining ingredients. Cook on high for five or six hours until the potatoes are soft and the soup is thick. (If you’re pressed for time, you can add a can of sliced/cooked potatoes to the batch during the last hour, instead of the fresh potatoes.) Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

I love making this all-day vegetarian soup in the slow cooker; I can leave it alone and let the flavors meld for hours. It tastes even better the next day, and there’s plenty to share. — CL

School supplies

Midlife is a time to listen deeply to your heart, a period of transition and reappraisal.” — Carl Jung

I have a hunch that fall is arriving early. Maybe it’s the angle of sunlight on the last of the black-eyed Susans in my perennial garden. Or maybe it was the sound of berries and acorns crunching under my bicycle tires on the nature trails yesterday.

Whatever triggered it, I can’t ignore the maternal instinct to shop for back-to-school supplies – even though I don’t have a student to buy them for.

My only child did exactly what all parents hope their kids will do. He grew up. He attended the university of his choice, then started a grown-up’s job just two months after commencement ceremonies.  His dad and I helped him pack up the car, headed with him down the expressway, and waved a tearful good-bye in front of a small flat in Chicago after we unloaded the last piece of stereo equipment.

That was two years ago. But sometimes I struggle to get my mind around the fact that I’m officially an empty nester now.

Watching the younger moms in my neighborhood – the ones buying new Crayolas and lunch kits – I recall the exhilarating sense of freedom I’d get when my son started school each year.  In those days, it was a blessing to have six quiet hours a day to meet writing deadlines and run errands all by myself. At the time, the calendar on our kitchen wall was scribbled top to bottom with kid-related events and appointments – a perpetual list of band concerts, school conferences, homeroom baking marathons, and carpool schedules.  Not to mention all the medical appointments for my pending hip-replacement surgeries.

I still can’t fathom how any mother finds the time to do it all — no matter how many kids she has. In any event, I’m not sure how I kept my own balance on the roller-coaster ride we call “the parenting years.”  But I did, and sometimes I really miss those years.

Retiring or redefining?

It took several months to regain equilibrium after my son first left for college in 2004.  His bedroom at home looked so eerily clean and empty that I made a habit of keeping the door shut. Until then, I hadn’t fully realized that the career I’d loved most — more than writing or publishing or teaching — was being a mom. It caught me off-guard, like a thunderstorm on the freeway, or the tears that roll unexpectedly when you catch the lyrics of an old song on the radio while you’re driving.

So I had to figure out where to devote my enthusiasm in this uncharted phase of my midlife.

My relationship with my husband was (and always will be) at the top of my priority list. And yes, I’d have more time to devote to writing and long lunches with friends. But I also needed to explore something creative and different. Something just for myself.

The ancient ritual of buying school supplies provided my very first clue — and I’m sharing it with the hope that every empty nester who’s reading this will look for the bread crumbs on the path leading to her own passion.

The inner artist emerges

I was browsing at the office supply store with my son a week before he moved into his freshman dorm. While he wandered the computer aisles in search of an essential gizmo, I was magically drawn to a rainbow display of felt-tipped calligraphy pens, colored pencils, and drawing pads. My inner artist, who’d been hushed and banished to a corner of my psyche after I graduated from college, pushed forward and made herself heard. At the time I wasn’t sure what she’d do with all those pens and markers, but she refused to leave the store without them.

I think John Updike explained it best when he said, “What art offers is space — a certain breathing room for the spirit.” Because that’s exactly what I needed.

A month later, I started shopping for real art supplies at the local craft store, where I also discovered several gorgeous art magazines featuring how-to articles on mixed-media collage and altered books. I couldn’t learn fast enough. And by the end of that year, I found myself clearing space for an art studio upstairs above the garage. My son reveled in his freshman year at the University of Notre Dame while I happily painted, cut, and pasted another path of my own.

So, it’s getting to be that time of year again. Time to get the garden ready for bed. Time to head upstairs to the art studio and see what art will teach me next.

I’ve already started making notes on projects I’d like to begin — a line of greeting cards, a mixed-media collage or two, and a deliciously creepy construction for an upcoming Halloween show. Preparing for the new season, I swept the floor of the studio last week and took stock of what I’ll need to begin again. I can hardly wait to shop for my new supplies. — Cindy La Ferle

— Art studio photos by Cindy La Ferle —