Where? When?

Burnt Eggplant & Tomato Tahini (Recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi)

The blooms opening, pulling in all it takes so they are at their brightest and most lovely, are, of course, the signs and sacraments of spring. But what moved my Dad most at this time of the year began when ghost-grey limbs of trees stripped bare in the late fall, first got a greenish sheen to them. As day followed day, the green would take form, translucent and fragile, yes. But substantial. Real.

My dad and I followed that unfolding , on drives day after day, during each of the five springs we shared. aThe greening of the land was almost painfully exquisite to us the spring before his death. It made our trips into town on Old Selma Road magical. These days, if I won’t glance over, won’t try to get a glimpse of him, Dad is right there, riding beside me as I head to work. Such a strange combination of longing and comfort accompanies me as I strain to take in all that ordinary beauty made new once again. I feast my eyes for him, as well as me.

When my mom died, I never had the sense of presence I have with my dad. I imagine there are all kinds of reasons why. Surely, not ever having lived with my mother for more than a couple of weeks at a time since leaving for college when I was 18, had meant we lacked the kinds of rituals and routines I had with Dad. It feels strange, that absence with no sense of real presence.

A few days ago, I got a small package from Amazon, a replacement nob for the lid of one of two “Le Creuset” pieces that are my pride and joy in the kitchen. I hadn’t used the smaller piece for years because without a nob on the lid, it was hard to manage. With the lid all better, this morning, I used it to put up an eggplant dish I was preparing. Memories swirled around me like the tide rushing in. Both pieces were my mom’s. She brought the one I used this morning on one of her visits to our home in Lauderdale. The other one always sat at the top of the cabinets in her kitchen in Panamá, only to be used at Christmas to make the annual Swedish baked beans. After her death, my dad had no use for it and was only too glad to start decluttering. I lugged the piece from Panamá back to the USA in my carry-on, a 5 ½ qt dutch oven that, as they say in Colombia, weighed more than a bad marriage.

I have used the dutch oven almost weekly. Each time I lean down to pull it out of its shelf, I am aware of its weight, the strain on muscle, sinew, and bone as I lift it out. The smaller piece, pictured above, is not as heavy but my heart was particularly happy this morning as I piled a delicious new dish into that beautiful oval piece that I remembered from the kitchen of our house in Cali.

Today, what I realized was very simple. Such practical beauty, such ability to hold what nurtures and delights, such heft and “here-ness”: this is where and how my mama is with me, even now. And I give thanks…

Dissonance and Delight

It isn’t that the horror and grief aren’t relentless. For the first time, maybe ever, I was glad yesterday during the service at my church to use the older, more victorian Eucharistic prayer we call Rite I, with all its emphasis on our wretchedness. Through all my years in the ordained ministry, I have repeated, over and over, that all God’s children are beloved, all humanity held in the heart of a God who is always creating, redeeming and sustaining. Never before have I so thoroughly believed, and been glad to say out loud, the first sentences of what’s known as the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”

Even in the midst of the realities of a new war in Europe, on the heels of a devastating pandemic, both of which began as we entered the season of Lent, I have been holding dear a moment both of dissonance and delight that met me unexpectedly last Thursday. I had visited a parishioner who is 97 and remarkable beyond words and then was heading home. I needed some limes and lemons, as well as a jalapeño so I decided I stop at Capital Market, a grocery store just across from the major thoroughfare close to my church. I have only been there once since the pandemic started in 2020 and even before that, I was not a frequent shopper there either.

I walked in and immediately was greeted by the music that always plays; I suspect the owner is active in a Pentecostal church so there’s a never-ending stream of Christian songs to walk through the store with. And in this space is one of the most international, diverse grocery stores in the area–aisles of Korean food, Indian food, Asian food, Caribbean food, Latino food. I’m usually in a hurry and know exactly what I want so I am in and out of there in a jiffy. On Thursday, I slowed down. Marveled at the variety of vegetables, fruits, and greens in the produce section. The dizzying array of dried chiles from Mexico and Central America. The large section of “Coca Cola Mexicana.” And then I got to the beginning of the aisle with Latin food.

Just a few steps down that aisle and there, right at eye-level for me, were cans of Milo. Milo is a chocolate powder you add to milk. For a time early in our childhood, my brother Hans and I had very frequent, tough bouts of tonsillitis and ear infections. We would be put on all these antibiotics that tore through our guts. You don’t get through childhood in Colombia without one or another intestinal parasite and the medicine for one of them included arsenic when I was a kid. Those too were hell on our bodies. All of that added up to a pair of pretty scrawny kids whose mama kept trying to put a little meat on their bones. The way to do it involved giving us Milo, touted for having lots of vitamins and minerals–a beverage of champions. Man, did we love it!!! And then, we got our tonsils out and got sick a lot less. I can’t remember seeing Milo in our house after I was about 6 or 7; as much as we’ had loved it, I can’t remember missing it.

Nonetheless, decades later, here were those only-too-familiar green cans of Milo in a store far more like the Carulla grocery stores in Colombia than a Publix or Fresh Market–a little scruffy, a little chaotic, a lot colorful. All of a sudden it created mind-boggling, cognitive dissonance. Was I in Cali, Colombia, circa 1965, or was I was in Montgomery, Alabama in 2022? I snapped pictures of the Milo, of the panela imported from Colombia, and of the frozen arepas, sent the pictures to my brother Hans in Holland. Along with the dissonance there was the purest of delight. Of appreciation for my childhood, for the wacky weirdness of living in Alabama. For my mama who worried so much for her peeps, and Ligia, the woman who cooked for us and prepared those glasses of Milo for us every day. For the way the two pieces of who I am came together in such an unexpected way on an ordinary Thursday. More than anything, I was alive and so glad for that…

Perhaps it is wrong to dwell on a silly moment. On Sunday, the NYT published a piece about Auden’s poem Musée Des Beaux Arts that captures another kind of dissonance this moment brought with it. At least for me, here and now, there are some concrete things I can do in response to the horror unfolding in Ukraine–there are donations to make, prayers to offer, a willingness to pay attention and not ignore the suffering. When delight, or wonder, or surprise, or joy find me, it feels ungrateful and foolish not to welcome the messy, complicated truth that life is like that. So here’s to a glass of icy cold Milo, mamas doing their best for their kiddos, the truth that those children grow up and then grow old, and to scruffy supermarkets with treasures waiting to be discovered. ( BTW–it was more than enough to simply look at those cans, I had no desire whatsoever to buy one and try it again.)