October Memories

October is a symphony of permanence and change.” — Bonaro W. Overstreet

The following short essay began as a journal entry after my father died. I recently rediscovered the notebook in which I’d written it longhand. First published in the October 1998 edition of Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, it’s also included in my book, Writing Home.

October Memories

Lately I’ve been thinking of these lines from Anne Mary Lawler’s poem about the seasons: October dresses in flame and gold, Like a woman afraid of growing old.

This is a potent month for memories. Yesterday I watched while my son and the children next door tumbled like acrobats in the fallen leaves. (Is there a kid in the Midwest who hasn’t done this?) And later in the evening, I sniffed the familiar aroma of wood-burning fires, another indisputable sign that winter is on its way.

For me, the smoky scents of October always evoke a favorite memory of my father raking leaves in the small backyard of our first home. The memory is more than three decades old, but it glows as vividly as the logs crackling in the grate tonight.

When I was growing up — before environmental laws — everyone in my neighborhood raked leaves into neat brown piles, then burned them near the curb or in backyard bonfires. Dry and brittle as bones, the leaves and twigs snapped furiously when introduced to a match. Back then, October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

Like most fathers, mine worked on weekdays, and often spent his weekends doing yard work. Long before the term “quality time” was coined by childcare experts, Dad would enlist my help raking leaves on Sunday after church. I offered very little assistance, preferring to toss his neatly piled leaves back into the air, or to roll in what remained of his handiwork. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy my reckless company — and I enjoyed the novelty of helping him. Unlike my mom, who would have seized the opportunity for “girl talk,” my dad didn’t always communicate with words. On those brisk autumn afternoons, with the sun glinting through bare branches of oak and maple, it was enough for us to be together. He raked, I rolled, and nothing of dire importance was ever said.

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October weekends seemed to drift in mysterious clouds of gray-blue smoke — the perfect prelude to Houdinis Halloween.

_________________________

Still, young as I was, I felt the ancient ache and pull of October.

By then, I understood the seasons were cyclical; that the easy days of summer would return as surely as apples had ripened every fall. But I’d also begun to grasp the concept that time trudges ahead in a straight line, like it or not, ruffling the smooth texture of our days as it marches forward. I couldn’t have explained it quite this way, but suddenly I knew I’d have to “yield with a grace,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “the end of a love or a season.”

I recall watching my handsome young father in his plaid flannel shirt while he whistled and tended his banks of smoldering leaves, their acrid smoke filling my nostrils and forcing tears. I remember wishing that everything could stay the same — that I wouldn’t have to grow up or grow old; that autumn afternoons wouldn’t bleed to winter.

It was as if I had glimpsed the distant future and seen my father’s empty chair at our Thanksgiving table.

Of course, Dad had no idea that I had stumbled on a vast, disturbing truth and was forever changed by it. He worked contentedly, pausing only to watch me or to loosen the dried leaves from the long teeth of his rake. And that is the way I like to remember him:  arrested in time on that October afternoon, living in the moment, always whistling. — Cindy La Ferle

— Top photo of a maple tree in my Vinsetta Park neighborhood. (copyright Cindy La Ferle) —

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.

__________

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

___________

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

Shifting creative gears

Enjoy a tiny adventurous moment close to home. It changes your perspective, reminding you that the world is deep and rich and full of color and miracles.” –SARK

A lot of us are stumbling over creative blocks lately. Those who live in the wintry Midwest and Northeast blame it on lack of sunshine. Or cabin fever. Even if things are going reasonably well in other areas of our lives, we might gaze out our windows at the icy moonscape that once bloomed with roses or black-eyed Susans and feel twinges of ennui, or even despair.

Whatever the cause, it’s hard to get inspired when you’re sluggish and blue.

Last month I tripped over a huge creative block and hit a wall. For starters, what began as a satisfying home renovation project was abruptly stalled by a carpet order gone wrong, thanks to the evil Home Depot. (As a result, our master bedroom stayed torn apart for weeks.) Meanwhile, my elderly mom’s dementia-related health problems took a turn for the worse, requiring several trips to her doctor — and the hospital — for tests. As her sole caregiver, I felt helpless and exhausted.

Worst of all, I couldn’t seem to write or talk my way out of any of it. It was time to work from another side of my brain. Time to shift creative gears and to make something tangible and fun.

Bead therapy

Just in time, I received a clothing catalog featuring one of the coolest fetish necklaces I’d ever seen. Strung with African trading beads, brass trinkets, and a wild collection of charms, it evoked long walks on Caribbean beaches and cabana cocktails under the stars. A summer-fantasy vacation on a string!

I was tempted to pull out my credit card and purchase the fetish necklace online or over the phone. Instead, I decided to treat myself to the pure fun of making it myself.

Things were slow at the local craft store when I arrived on a gray Wednesday afternoon with the catalog photo in hand. The salesclerk working in the bead section was just as intrigued by the necklace, and eager to help with the project. Taking my time, I chose a few imported beads that had special meaning to me: a wooden bead with a butterfly motif (symbolizing transformation); another with a Celtic spiral; others that simply caught my eye.

At home I played with the beads until they became a necklace, stringing them together one by one and finding myself in a sunnier frame of mind. Of course, our master bedroom was still in chaos, beyond my control. And my mother’s dementia-related “episodes” were still unresolved. Regardless, I’d made something cheerful and new. The necklace wasn’t exactly like the one in the catalog — but I’d made it my own.

I often tell my workshop students that writing an essay or a chapter is a bit like stringing beads to form a beautiful necklace. Like the right bead, each word or sentence must do its share of the work to bring meaning or sparkle to the whole piece. You need to take your time, choose carefully, and take pleasure in the process.

That said, no matter what you’re working on, you could find yourself getting tangled up in “the process” at some point. When that happens, it helps to take a break. Or try making yourself a real necklace. — Cindy La Ferle

— Fetish necklace in photos by Cindy La Ferle —

In praise of scars

By the time you become Real, most of your hair has been loved off. Your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” –Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

 

Earlier this week, my friend Alice posted this empowering Caitlin Crosby video on her Facebook wall and I was moved to share it with everyone. The video reminded me of an essay I wrote, published in a metro-Detroit women’s magazine three years ago. Here it is:

How scars make us real

Once the anesthesia wore off and I could wiggle my toes again, my first concern was the new incision running down my left side. Ten inches long and an angry shade of red, it marked the place where my hip had been removed, packed with a bone graft, and totally rebuilt with a prosthetic implant. A long row of tiny staples closed the wound, making it look as if Dr. Frankenstein had sewn a zipper into my birthday suit.

Still woozy in the post-operative station, I imagined how awful the scar would look after it healed. And I wondered: Would I ever find the courage to wear a bathing suit in public again? Would my husband think my body was less attractive?

Coming to my senses the next morning, I tried to focus on my blessings. Those blessings included the skilled orthopedic surgeon who had agreed to perform the complicated three-hour surgery. Most orthopedic surgeons, including mine, prefer to reserve total hip replacement for elderly patients because they are less likely to need revision surgeries in the future.

I was only in my forties when I was diagnosed with degenerative osteoarthritis in both hips. But this sympathetic doctor understood that the quality of my daily life was “seriously impacted” by my disability, as he put it. Practically immobile, I’d already qualified for a handicap parking permit, and couldn’t even stand at the kitchen counter long enough to open a can of cat food or prepare a simple family meal. I’d been missing band concerts and mothers’ club meetings at my son’s middle school because I couldn’t climb the steps to the building. I’d started turning down lunch dates with friends, preferring to nurse my pain in bed at home.

I needed surgical intervention.

Of course, I knew I’d have several weeks of physical therapy and rehab during recovery. But I could also look forward to walking pain-free without canes or crutches again. So why did I let vanity dampen my hard-won victory?

Facing up to flaws

Scars of any kind are a challenge to recovering perfectionists. For years, I was one of those worried women who followed the advice given in beauty and fashion magazines. I invested ridiculous amounts of energy trying to conceal every personal flaw and foible. To expose my weak spots — or admit that I was ever damaged in any way — was too frightening to imagine. No matter how many skin-perfecting creams I bought, or how many self-improvement books I devoured, I couldn’t stop believing that I didn’t quite measure up.

Ironically, I’ve always admired quirks in other people and in most of the stuff I own. One of the early practitioners of shabby chic, I can list several rooms in my home that are furnished entirely with faded flea-market treasures and garage sale rejects. Overgrown cottage gardens, non-pedigree pets, freckles, rusty tools, crow’s feet, and crooked smiles intrigue me. I’ve cherished childhood toys covered in stains and stitches, and I’m partial to an old leather jacket burnished by seasons of wear.

Scars and wrinkles are the emblems of a richly textured life — a survivor’s life. They document our personal histories and bear witness to how far we’ve traveled. Our scars and wrinkles prove we’ve survived childbirth, car accidents, skin cancer, military combat, messy divorces, failed business opportunities, and lost loves.

My long recovery from hip replacement surgery gave me a lot of extra time to think about these things.

Practicing my physical therapy, I was reminded that becoming real requires bumping up against adversity — and sometimes falling apart. It’s a deconstruction process. Whether you’re nursing a shattered limb, a bruised ego, or a wounded heart, it can take time to reassemble and repair the broken parts. But ultimately you heal and, hopefully, grow more interesting. You tighten the loose seams in your character along the way.

Five months after my first hip replacement, I returned to the hospital for the same surgery on my other damaged hip. And today, six years later, I’m sporting a beautifully matched set of titanium joints that have given me back my mobility — and identical scars on each side. Over time, the scars have faded considerably, though you can still spot them several yards away on the beach.

Now I celebrate them — these two ten-inch valleys marking the surgeries that gave me a miraculous second chance. I have earned them, and they have made me real. — Cindy La Ferle

— In photo: collage detail from “On Beauty” (an altered book page) by Cindy La Ferle —