of gardens and grandmothers
a podcast with Margaret Roach
(and a book give-away, too)

unspecifiedIt’s just after 5 a.m. as I type these words, still completely dark outside. But my friend Margaret Roach and I have already said “Good morning” via Skype with a blitz of typed messages. (It’s way too early to talk out loud and risk waking my husband, recovering from a week of flu in our bedroom down the hall.)

Margaret reports she’s having trouble sleeping these days, too. Combine post-election angst, the unusually warm November days,  darkness descending suddenly at 4 pm each afternoon, and a moon that demands one’s full attention, and it’s little wonder that we’re each feeling a bit out of sync with our normal routines.

[continue…]

A bit more about Gracie, gratitude, and you. . .

IMG_5604 - Version 2“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

— from E.B. White on Dogs

I almost didn’t write about losing our beloved dog Gracie last week. My grief felt so raw, so private, and so painful. I wasn’t sure I could put it into words or share it in public. Our family was in mourning, tender and sad. My first impulse was to turn inward, to hunker down in my house and have a long cry.

On the other hand, for the last four years I’ve made a practice of writing here about both the joys and challenges of my life, reflections that are always personal but that also, I hope, touch something universal. I had written about our Gracie while she lived. It seemed only fitting to let you know she was gone.

IMG_3556Each day this week, I lit a candle in the midst of a makeshift Gracie altar in the middle of our kitchen. We have taken some solace in having lots of photos of her propped up along the shelf. Her empty collar is here. Her leash. Her tennis ball and ball flinger. A bit of her white tail hair, tied in a ribbon. It feels both good and sad to have these things, and to have a place to go when we wonder why she isn’t where she belongs, curled up in a tidy oval shape on the rug or sitting, alert, on her favorite rock in the back yard. [continue…]

Thanksgiving

Tomorrow night, for the first time in months, both our boys will be home, everyone sleeping in their own beds under one roof.

And on Thursday afternoon we will gather round the table at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner with the whole extended family. For well over forty years, with barely a miss, I’ve spent Thanksgiving in that very same kitchen, have eaten my dad’s grilled turkey and homemade ice cream, my mom’s pumpkin pie and peas and mashed potatoes. The cast of characters around the table has changed over time, of course. Various cousins and aunts and uncles and significant others and spouses have made entrances and exits. Dear loved ones have passed on and dear little ones have been born and grown up. And, along the way, each one of us has created our own enduring memories: brisk walks in the woods; skating on the pond (long, long ago, when there was ice in November); a fiance’s first appearance at the table; a grandfather’s final one; a grandmother’s last apple pie; a baby who is suddenly grown-up enough to sit with the adults; a sullen teenager miraculously transformed into a mature and engaging young man; an aunt and uncle determined to make a trip all the way from Florida so as not to miss dinner.

What’s been constant however, through all those decades, through all those comings and goings and births and deaths, is the house that somehow contains us all, the stories that get retold year after year as the plates are passed, and the presence in that house of my parents who, even as they’re rounding the corner toward eighty, still manage to make a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings look effortless.

Each year, when my mother gets out her old gravy-stained notebook and begins her Thanksgiving countdown (pretty much the same to-do list, whether there are going to be 8 of us at the table or 38, as there occasionally were in the old days), she pulls out the crayoned drawing my cousin Paul made thirty-five years ago, when he was seven, the one that says: “I love going to the Thanksgiving house.” My mom cherishes that faded picture; she always sticks it up on the refrigerator, where she can see it as she cooks. And then, three days before we all show up for dinner, she gets busy, shopping for groceries, making stock, setting the table, brining the bird.

My parents are the keepers of the sugar and creamer set shaped like turkeys (which always sort of grossed out my Uncle Chet, who didn’t like to see his cream pouring out of a ceramic gobbler). They have the ice cream maker, the pie servers, the turkey platter, the covered dishes, the baster and twine, the big cutting board and carving set, plenty of dishes and silverware to go around. The tried-and-true recipes, annotated for crowds. The notes my mom has kept, religiously, about who came to dinner and what was said and who was missed this year.

Even after all this time, my mother and father are happy to put the meal on the table for the rest of us – grown children, spouses, grandchildren, and assorted invited guests. All we have to do is show up and appreciate the gifts they gladly offer — not only the food but, even more important, a spacious day of togetherness. And so it happens that once again this week, my family will come together in the house that has always been home base for all of us. At the same time I can’t help but think: It will not always be so.

At 54 years of age, I have yet to cook a turkey myself. Somehow, thanks to my mom’s dedicated service in the Thanksgiving house decade after decade, it’s a rite of passage I’ve managed to avoid. But the day will arrive when the baster will need to be passed. I think I’m going to take myself out of the running. Henry is going over to his grandmother’s house tomorrow afternoon to give her a hand with the potatoes and the squash. He knows the drill, and I have a feeling he would be honored to inherit my mom’s Thanksgiving notebook when the time comes.

For now, though, I don’t want to contemplate the future, but to fully immerse myself in the present. Two grown sons both at home tomorrow night. A couple of too-short days of togetherness. Time set aside to slow down and take stock of all that is good. For gratitude, as we all know, is not a given but rather a way of being to be cultivated. It doesn’t come packaged like the Stouffer’s stuffing mix nor is it ensured by the name of the holiday. No, real “thanksgiving” requires us to pause long enough to feel the earth beneath our feet, to gaze up into the spaciousness of the sky above, and to stop and take a good, long, loving look at the precious faces sitting across from us at the dinner table.

Life can turn on a dime. Not one of us knows, ever, what fate has in store, or what challenges await just around the bend. But I do know this: nothing lasts. Life is an interplay of light and shadow, blessings and losses, moments to be endured and moments I would give anything to live again. I will never get them back, of course, can never re-do the moments I missed or the ones I still regret, any more than I can recapture the moments I desperately wanted to hold onto forever. I can only remind myself to stay awake, to pay attention, and to say my prayer of thanks for the only thing that really matters: this life, here, now.

I’d love to know: What are you grateful for today, here, now?

Friends: My new book Magical Journey will be in the stores in early January — just weeks away. In the meantime, I’ll post all the news, including where I’ll be and when, on my new Author page on Facebook. I would love it if you’d “LIKE” me there: http://www.facebook.com/kkenisonbooks

And of course pre-orders are ALWAYS appreciated. Order now, and have a book on your doorstep on January 8.

Thanksgiving

“Thanksgiving is really over,” my friend Patti wrote yesterday.  “All that’s left are yams.”  I know what she means.  In our house, it’s a Tupperware container a third full of broth-less turkey soup, which no one really wants to face again.

When I was growing up, my parents put on Thanksgiving dinner for the whole extended family.  My mother would pull out her spiral-bound Thanksgiving notebook a week in advance, and begin making lists and trying to pin down numbers.  Thanksgiving for thirty was a week-long enterprise that involved moving the furniture around, sliding leaves into tables, ironing tablecloths, grocery shopping with two carts, staying up late the night before, peeling potatoes and butternut squash.  By ten in the morning the relatives would begin to arrive, bearing home-baked pies and braided loaves and tins of homemade fudge.

My grandma Kenison always brought apple pie and a loaf of her airy white bread, perfect for sandwiches the next day.  If the forecast promised clear skies, her brother, Great-Uncle Woodrow, would come too, and could be counted on for his famous raspberry pie, made with berries he’d picked in July and frozen heaped into a pie plate for this very occasion.  My dad churned two kinds of ice cream in the garage and roasted a huge turkey on the Weber, while my mom tended a second bird in the oven. It was my job to wash the grapes, make the clam dip, stuff celery, arrange olives and sweet gherkin pickles on the lazy susan.  The aunts and grandmothers chatted in the kitchen; the men would retreat, beers in hand, to the den and football on the TV; eventually my brother and I would be shooed outside with all the cousins for “fresh air before dinner.”

The meal was on the table, without fail, between one pm and two. Heads would bow, while a grandparent said the grace, remembering those who had died, giving thanks for the health of those gathered round, blessing the food, the family, the day.  The menu never varied: turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and baked sweet potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce, creamed onions and boiled peas, squash, sliced bread, marshmallow salad.  Four kinds of pie.  Every year was the best year ever, every dish the best it had ever been — even the year a wild windstorm blew the power out and my parents managed to cook the entire meal in the fireplace and on the grill.  Always, someone would say that we’d eaten too fast. Always, someone who claimed to be too full to swallow one more bite would agree to seconds anyway, just to make it last.  And then, just as the rest of us were slowing down, loosening belts or unbuttoning pants, Uncles Roger and Chet, who saw each other but once a year, for the Thanksgiving feast, would, by some unspoken signal, face off.  The bowls of mashed potatoes and stuffing would be passed down the table, the plates filled again, and the two of them would set to work, this annual competition for the greatest stomach capacity as much a ritual part of our day as the Macy’s parade or the fruitcake that no one ever ate, but that everyone insisted my mom had to make anyway, for breakfast the morning after.

Somehow, by the time the last car pulled out of the driveway and disappeared into the night, the kitchen would be restored to order, the dishes done, the turkey carcass encased in foil and tucked into the fridge, surrounded by precarious stacks of leftovers.  My parents made the whole thing look easy.  And as a result, although I am now a middle-aged mother of two nearly grown children and fancy myself a good cook, I have never cooked a turkey in my life.

Last week, my mom and dad produced their forty-eighth Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s been a long time since we hosted the whole clan.  Death and circumstance and the passage of time have separated us.  And this year, with Henry in Minnesota, and my brother at his wife’s family’s house, there were just five of us at the table, as small a Thanksgiving as we’ve ever had in our family.  We edited a little: no fruitcake, no creamed onions or clam dip or home-made ice cream.  But otherwise, the meal was the one I’ve eaten all my life.  Jack and Steve and I held hands with my mom and dad, said grace together, and then we each spoke in turn about what we’re grateful for.  My dad had tears in his eyes as he said, “I’m just glad that we can still do this.”

Earlier in the day, I’d taken a walk and passed a house where a dozen or more family members were engaged in a rag-tag football game out on the lawn.  For an instant then, I found myself feeling sad, yearning for the good old days, the gaggle of aunts and uncles and cousins, the holiday as production.  But it really was just for an instant.  We’ve had that, I reminded myself.  We’ve lived it, loved it, and come now to a different part of life’s journey.  And back at the house, at that very moment, my parents were putting the finishing touches Thanksgiving dinner, as they have for as long as I’ve been on the planet.

The five of us lingered at the table for a long time, enjoying one another’s company as well as the meal.  We raised a glass to the missing ones and the departed ones, and we savored what was ours to savor in the moment.  And then, in no time at all,  Steve and Jack and I had the dishes done.  We whiled away the afternoon, talked to the relatives on the phone, played Scrabble and Bananagrams, nicked away at the pie.

In the morning, my mom and I divvied up the remains of the bird. By evening, we three were home again, stock simmering on our own stove, Thanksgiving abundance carrying us right through the weekend.  Today Jack went back to school, Steve took one last biscuit and bowl of soup to work for his lunch, and another Thanksgiving holiday came to an end.  Someday, I know, I’ll be the one following my mom’s old recipes, and Steve will be trying to recreate my dad’s special nest of charcoal on the grill.  But right now, I’m grateful, above all, for this: the fact that I’m still somebody’s daughter.