Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy

Gung Pao Chicken #2 Spicy is written on my desk calendar, on a piece of scrap paper in my bag, at the bottom of our grocery list. My husband’s favorite order from a small Vietnamese restaurant we like. Okay, a place where we ate so often that the servers know us. 

It is a neighborhood eatery where we could relax after a busy day or before running errands. Carry out orders flew from the kitchen. Tables were filled with college students, young families, parents with grouchy high school kids, retirees. Large fish tanks amuse young diners. Food came fast. On rainy or winter nights the crowded room felt cozy. 

When curbside carry out became available, we called our place. The first night, part of our order was missing when we got home. Two weeks later my stir fry had little flavor and the rice needed warming. We noted the slip-ups, but didn’t dream about trying another place or dropping Vietnamese from our carry out rotation. They know who we are when we walk in. I know the person who says it is good to see me. They prefer cash and I understand how credit card fees eat into small business sales. 

The food is good, but not great. It is truly all about the people and setting. And we want to keep their kitchen busy and their staff working until that atmosphere can be restored and there is time to talk about the world as water glasses are filled. We have a connection. In cities that builds neighborhood.

Storefronts and restaurants have already closed on their block because of seven months without stable sales and the whammy of riot damage. Social distancing outside the watch repair place, there are no lines next to me at the theater where a new release is showing. No patrons sit around tables at the tea shop. Inventory looks low at the corner gift store. What will the holidays look like for these small merchants? How will a tenuous consumer economy support neighborhood places? 

So much is unknown because most of us haven’t experienced circumstances so forbidding. This has been described as the worst economy since the Big Depression. Hopefully there will be enough folks in the neighborhood, with resources, ordering Gung Pao Chicken to keep owners and employees of small businesses intact. In the meantime, let’s keep safe and watch out for each other.

The Family Tree

The Bayside Tavern in Fish Creek, Wisconsin has two buck burgers on Mondays during the off season. There’s a choice in seating– high tops, low tables, tiny booths for two, or stools at the bar. Narrow windows keep the inside dim. It is the place to go before the community Christmas tree is lit across the street, before the high school musical, to watch the Packers or Badgers or Brewers play. Maybe the Bears or Cubs for those brave enough to wear such jerseys. If you are a local, or a seasonal local, they probably know your name.

My Dad preferred a booth and ordered fried onions on his burger. He had haunts in Door County including the best places for good food. He knew the parents of people important in the community—the Catholic priest, the sheriff, a few bar owners.

So it was at the Bayside that my cousin Jeff Frisque and I met for lunch, the first time we had ever talked to one another except at family funerals. We connected through Facebook where many of the cousins have friended each other. Taking a risk, Jeff and I moved from responding to postings to trying a direct message.  Jeff’s father and one aunt are the last living siblings.

In my book, The High Cost of Flowers, the eldest sibling comes to the realization that to have the kind of extended family you want can require effort. And as the elders age, the responsibility passes to the children to do something, or to walk away. My husband and I are the elders of our families. That sounds easier to me than embracing the concept of adult orphans. We value the small circles of those connected to us by birth or marriage. Along with those we love, we have developed new traditions to stay close.

The Bayside Tavern might become a comfortable setting for weaving together the grandchildren of Michael Frisque. In his prime he spent many hours in bars, but I don’t know if he ever sat at this one. I didn’t know my grandfather well enough to say how he felt about his children and grandchildren. None of that was important in sharing lunch with my cousin Jeff.

Jeff is known locally for building and restoring exquisite log homes. We share love for Door County. We both showed up with spouses, a sign of how we value our families and would go to great extremes to protect them. We are not members of the same political parties although we may share a few beliefs. I think we are both tender-hearted about the right stuff. We both love or admire each other’s fathers. We walked away with each other’s email addresses and telephone numbers.

We also both like burgers at the Bayside. Mark that on the family tree.

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Sharing the Load

Canadian wildfires more than a thousand miles away filled Wisconsin’s northern skies with haze. Following another warm summer day slightly diminished by the loss of blue heavens and the company of pesky mosquitos, helping a neighbor harvest their lavender field made a small part of the world all okay. At eight in the evening, thanks to Canadian smoke particulates, the July sun appeared a gentle gold surrounded by a flaming ring. With humidity and heat lifting, the air felt just right to stay outside

She knelt next to the plants, cutting the flowered sprigs with a curved knife. I gathered handfuls, wound the end with a rubber band, then handed each to her husband to trim and load for moving. Their collies laid between the rows, noses resting on paws. A hawk screeched above as it circled the field. We talked about nothing much scattered with deeply important stuff.

We have other jobs that claimed the day, but like all plants lavender has a time to be harvested. They had already completed hours in the field and hung hundreds of bouquets in the barn to partially dry. In a few days the lavender would fill a roadside cart for customers. Sharing the work, an hour went by quickly. Mosquitos called an end to our time.

Some kind of magic happens when friends share the work of their days. Weeding each other’s gardens, making a meal, washing dishes together, sanding another’s wood project, painting a room, harvesting lavender. Formality slips away. The need to create conversation slips into comfortable talk. We move in each other’s space naturally, slipping into the dance steps of our real lives without practice. That’s where memories are made.

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The Joy of Tears

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Before I even start the sentence, because I can’t start the sentence, because I can’t find a way through what feels to me a rushing creek frothing at the banks, forcing its way through a thin singular tube to my voice, I squeak, “This will make me cry.” Tears leak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks. Now, I can speak.

Sometimes, Juan and Crystel pre-empt their conversation with, “This will make you cry.” And, it does.

I’m so lucky.

DSCN0210I quit crying when I was 9. I know the exact day. I stood next to my mother. She was sitting at our dining table holding her book open. A cold cup of coffee in front her. A Pall Mall between her fingers. I was there to tell her that a brother had hurt me. She didn’t lift her eyes from the page. She inhaled deeply on her cigarette, placed it in the ash tray, then picked up her coffee cup. Red lipstick lined the edge.

I turned and walked away.

When I was 19 years old I swore something was broken in me. I had reported the sexual abuse in my family. My parent’s response was to tell me that I was disowned. That I could never come home.

I knew a normal person would shed tears. Though I tried, I couldn’t do it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Juan Jose’ and Crystel gave me the gift of tears when I was 44 years old. They were seven and eight months old when Jody and I brought them home. I felt safe with these babies. When Juan cried because he was left at daycare all day, I cried with him, knowing the sorrow of abandonment. When they were ten months old, all three of us, the babies and me were crying. Me, because I didn’t think they would ever grow up. Those two because they looked at each other and Juan could see that Crystel was sad and he just couldn’t stand that.

I felt safe because the babies couldn’t talk. They couldn’t tell anyone that Mama Beth was crying. My tears became normal.

When they were little, I’d read to them, “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. We’d sit on the couch, Juan on one side, Crystel on the other. Their heads resting against my body.

Crystel and Antonio June 2008

I’d read, “A mother held her new baby and very slowly rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And while she held him, she sang I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

They’d snuggle a little closer when I reached that same spot we always did where my chest filled up and the tears started. “The son went to his mother. He picked her up and rocked her back and forth, back and forth, and he sang her this song: I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my Mommy you’ll be.”

Playing games on McGruff (me).

Playing games on McGruff (me).

“Let me see,” Crystel would say. “Let me see.” She’d lift up my glasses and touch my tears. “Read it again, Mommy, read it again.”

I continue to have the joy of tears.

I cry when Juan is playing soccer and the players take  a knee when a teammate or opponent is hurt.

 I cry when Juan and Crystel are warming up before running a cross country race.

I cry every time someone says something good about them, which is often.

IMAG0013The kids know me so well. I had just picked Juan up from his work shift at Davanni’s. He said, “I thought you were going to cry when you watched me walk into work.”

I thought about it. Felt the creek starting to froth at the bank. Then said, “Well, I still might.”

I love my tears.

They make me alive.

 

 

Naming Rights

The ring I wear on my left hand honors my marriage. My maiden name—the name I’ve had all of my life—honors who I am as an individual.

J&E1985bWhen I married 30 years ago, this was an important and controversial distinction. Like many people, my parents worried that I would offend my in-laws and that our future children would encounter problems because my husband and I have two different last names.

Nonetheless, we felt strongly about this decision. He’d keep his name and I’d keep mine. For practical reasons, we didn’t choose to hyphenate. Shriner-Sakowski is just too much name!

Without meaning to, I did offend my in-laws, but they came to accept our decision. Our sons tell me that my different last name hasn’t been an issue for them. Perhaps some of their teachers or coaches assumed that my husband and I were divorced, but divorce is so commonplace that no one commented. I chose not to be offended when people called me Mrs. Sakowski. I knew who they meant and that they were trying to be polite. Often I pre-empted the discussion about names by introducing myself as “Greg’s Mom” or “Mike’s Mom.” That was all the teacher or coach wanted to know—my relationship to the kid in question. These days, I rarely have to explain the name difference.

So it came as a surprise that using a maiden name has been resurrected as an issue. Recently, a friend recounted a conversation she overheard at a coffee shop. A young couple was talking with their minister about their wedding ceremony and the minister said, “Some ultra feminists don’t even take their husband’s last names.” Huh? I can easily list half a dozen women I know who kept their maiden names. It’s not that radical.

Equally surprising was my recent experience with two different lawyers (one was settling my aunt’s estate and the other was handling my mother’s estate). Each assumed that I was Ellen Sakowski or Ellen Shriner-Sakowski. With my aunt’s lawyer, I explained several times that my real legal name is Ellen Shriner. Finally, I had to state unequivocally that I had never changed my name, and I wouldn’t be able to cash an inheritance check made out to either of those imaginary women.

But then I recalled that four young professional women I know who’ve recently married all took their husband’s names. I was surprised and remain curious. Is the gesture that was so important to me when I married irrelevant now? Does it no longer feel necessary to make that distinction? Are women’s independence and equality a given for those young women? I hope so, but I’m skeptical.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not trying to take anything away from women who choose their husband’s name. As a feminist, I believe women have the right to handle their names however they like: keeping their maiden names, using their maiden name as a middle name, or taking their husband’s name. I would never prescribe what a woman should call herself. Naming is a very personal decision.

I think of one friend who was glad to shed her father’s name when she married. They had a difficult relationship and taking her husband’s name was a way of distancing herself from her father and asserting her new grown-up identity. Changing her name was a mark of independence.

Another friend, who survived a childhood fraught with sexual abuse, invented a whole new name to mark the break from her family and her hard-won emotional health.

What really matters is whether the choice of name is based purely on personal preference rather than perceived societal expectations. As a feminist, I just hope that women today feel much more free to choose the name that pleases them than I felt 30 years ago.