At Home With My Mom

I spent a few days back home recently. At my mom’s house in a suburb outside of Houston. I’ve actually never lived there. Not in that house, not on that street or in that town.

DSCN6768.JPGI’ve never scaled those walls in the hallway. The back bedroom doesn’t have two different styles of wallpaper. The newer one from my high school years; a strip of the older wallpaper, from before the basement fire, in the closet still. The cement on the back porch doesn’t have my younger handprint engraved in it. The familiar items in the kitchen aren’t all in their right spot exactly. I mean, I can still find the sugar and flour in their Tupperware canisters to the right of the stove. The notebook, pens and scissors still have their exact spot so you can always find one when needed. But the cereal is now kept in the pantry closet, not in the cabinet above the dishwasher.

It’s a little unsettling seeing the stuff from my childhood in another setting.

Even though I’ve only frequented the suburbs of Houston in my adult years, I do have my list of favorite places to eat when I visit. Of course, it’s not the Hy-Vee grocery on the edge of my hometown where there’s a tenderloin sandwich special on Tuesdays. Or the Chinese buffet that makes the best American-style chicken strips because my friend’s dad, who owns the restaurant building, taught the owners how. Or the new donut shop that opened recently. I frequent all of these when we go back to spend time with extended family still there.

We have our list though. My favorites in her new town don’t hold the childhood memories that I have of that small town in rural Missouri. But they’re new memories I’m making with my mom.

We were sitting in her living room one afternoon and I mentioned how at home I felt in that moment. She reacted with great surprise. In a shaky voice, she said, “Really? Because it always makes me feel bad that we can’t meet up at the old home place. I never imagined leaving there.” My mom grew up in a town so small it didn’t even have one stoplight. She married young and knew no greater joy than being a wife and raising a family. In that one statement, she expressed her ongoing incredulity at where life had taken her.

When Dad died suddenly in 2006, everything changed. Actually, things had been changing years before that. Divorce always changes things. But when Dad passed away and we uncovered the debt he’d been incurring, it became clear pretty quickly that the family property outside of my hometown would need to be sold. Mom already lived in town by then but I think we’d all thought the property would ultimately be our gathering place. Even though my brother and I lived in other states. Even though my mom had left behind her lifelong dreams some time ago along with the house they had built together.

I think a part of her never forgave herself for walking away from it all. She really had no choice. We understood that. But the heart always wonders.

Mom,” I said. “Since the divorce you’ve lived in a few different places. They’ve all felt like home to me because you’re there. When I visit, my heart knows I’m going to see my mom.

There will always be a part of me that wishes my mom still lived in the little ranch house on Route 4. I’d enjoy watching my daughter set up a picnic under one of the trees in the front yard. We planted them in the 70‘ so they’re probably mature by now. It would give me endless pleasure to set out walking on the dirt road of my childhood, three generations across. We’d take a walk to the old Methodist church, although its doors are closed for good now. On the way back, maybe we’d swing by the cemetery and have a short visit with dad. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Life takes us so many places. I’ve learned this along the way. Wherever it takes mom, my heart will find a home there.

11923208_10206213051718939_6918748677159137139_n-3My name is Traci. I live in southwest Michigan, somewhere in a triangular section connecting Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids with all things Lake Michigan. My husband and I parent one daughter. We have dogs, cats, pigs and chickens. Their number is always changing, as farm animal counts tend to do. I enjoy watching sports, reading, cooking and all things Bible study. I am a writer.  When I first started blogging, I wondered about what unique voice I could bring. I’ve landed on this one line: A country girl goes to church.

Little Ears

“You’ll make a mess. Go outside to do that.”

With a prodding chide, my mom sent me to the front porch.

With just a bit of necessary force, my small hands grasped and pulled on the husks, exposing the yellow corn-on-cobkennels and sending silk wisping into the air. The husks ended up in the compost pile and the ears ended up in a pot of boiling water.

Sitting in our appointed spots, the tip of my pointing finger followed the rectangular pattern of the wooden table, hand-pieced together by my grandfather during a furniture making phase, as the meal was placed into the center of the table.

We bowed our heads as my father delivered a no-fuss blessing and then, passed the chipped serving dishes from person to person. A family favorite, each person took at least one ear of corn and smothered it in butter.  My dad peppered his; my mom added a dash of salt.  Silky wisps and a corn-shaped indentation remained in the yellow butter as it made its way around the table. As we began to eat, my little ears listened to the banter of my parents competitive jibes.

Pointing at the batch of undeveloped kennels, my dad teased my mom, “You must have grown this one.

My mom, delighting in her bite, “Oh, whoa….sweet and tender! This one must be mine.”

A celebrated feat, my dad would show off his empty cob, stripped perfectly clean by his two-handed, organized approach.  For us kids, our corn was wielded in one messy hand, kernels dangling from misshapen batches of half-eaten ears and off of our chins. But, with the growing stack of passed-over cobs, the remarks continued to fly.

Oh, this one is perfect. Definitely mine.”

It’s on the little side…must’ve have been yours.

In reality, they had grown them together. My dad guided the rototiller over the patch of land and planted the seeds. My mom weeded and watched for the infestation of bugs. Both took turns watering the rows of growing stalks and both prodded us children outside to participate in tasks of the garden.

Because it is was so evident that there was no “yours” and “mine”, these pokes and jabs were indications of affection, a life intertwined with a small patch of earth upon which they raised little ears.


Where I Came From: Perspectives from the Kitchen Sink

Annie, the orphan of curly red-headed fame was a staple of my childhood years. The VHS tape of her singing about “Tomorrow!” was often played in our down time as children. In it, Annie and the other kids of the city orphanage are longinAnnieWarbucksg for families and forced into fruitless hard labor by a nasty overseer, Ms Hannigan, who sloppily drinks gin in her bathtub. At the end, Daddy Warbucks steps in to love and care for Annie and all is well. (Or so I remember.)

My father was not like Daddy Warbucks. Where Mr. Warbucks was gruff, polished, and wealthy, my dad, in his most natural element, is mellow, slightly scruffy, and deeply appreciative of simplicity. At the heart of who he is, my father values hard work. Once, I heard him praise a hired kid with these words, “Someone taught you how to work, son. Thanks for your hustle today.”  Likewise, he taught me and my siblings to work. And still, in many ways, I am most at home working.

Mostly, I experienced the childhood tasks of family life with the wordless satisfaction of contributing, of doing what was expected of me. The wood pile grew as we added to it or shrunk as the pieces were carried into the house to be used in the woodstove.The flames in the rusty burn barrel or the plants that sprouted out the compost pile were things to watch and wonder about. Long sessions of grating cheese, placing it into ziploc bags to be frozen, or peeling apples, straight from the neighboring orchards, took place around the kitchen table. These were the normal activities of money-saving and country-living as far as I knew.

However, in one unfortunate incident of my childhood years, I was channeling my pre-teen Annie-angst about my “hard-knock life.” My father asked me a question, and I, filled with the injustice of having to wash the family dishes, muttered something snarky in response. I know it involved the dreadful command for him to “Shut up!”  Whatever sarcasm and disrespect I mumbled over the sink of soapy water must have caught my gentle dad at the wrong moment. His anger had a momentary flare. Amplified words about gratitude and “how good I have it” filled the kitchen space as he pulled me away from the kitchen sink. A generally good kid that wanted to please, I flushed with shame.

Years later, again up to my elbows in soapy water, a mountain of dishes awaited attention. The movement of many women in a kitchen, which could have been disastrous, resembled well-moving traffic patterns. All around me, to and fro, women dealt with leftovers, scrapped excess into the trash, dried the now-hot items and put them back into their cabinet home.

I was now a live-in staff member for a home that welcomed women in crisis–community meals and hence, community dish-washing were a regular part of our life together.  Many of these women had indeed had a “hard-knock life”–victims of others’ choices as well as their own; lives of poverty, trauma, and tremendous hardship. The women shared the common ground of being pregnant or having newborns. Their bellies, in various stages of soft roundness, gave witness to their motherhood. Their scars, tattoos, and biting humor gave witness to their past.

For the most part, dish-washing is the forgettable in-between activity of the more significant moments of meals and time spent together.  But for my eyes, this task was a place of great beauty, the dance of a community that knew how to work together.

For me, it was a feeling of home, similar to that of my childhood years.  But now, instead of moving under the protective gaze of my father, I was in the role of parent, teaching others to contribute to the wellbeing of our household, engaging everyone in money-saving tasks, and holding people accountable to inappropriate remarks.

With my mother at his side, my father had built my childhood home from his know-how, hard work, and long-suffering patience, slowly calling it into creation.  I had built the home for women out of the bones of an old, abandoned property, straight from the sheer goodness of God and from hours and hours of gut-wrenching, sacrificial work. In physically building a place, it has a special hold on you.  It helps me understand my father better.

Many of the women who I shared that kitchen with don’t have a father in their lives. Some never knew their father; others associate their father with the drugs and violence that he brought home. Many of those women grieve the fact that they will raise their children without a father. After years of hearing the stories of these women, it is painfully obvious that my father’s kitchen message was right. I have every reason to be grateful.

How good I had it.