Memories from Tattered Recipes

Holiday times have me searching through my recipes for prized favorites that have made their way from paper to oven to plate to mouth through the years.

It got me thinking about recipes and memories.

A good bit of the time I do what most men and women in the year 2022 do: I search for recipes online. I find them quickly. I read reviews. There are beautiful, colorful pictures showing me exactly what to do (who knew eggs in a bowl could be so pretty) showing me exactly what the end product will look like (so yummy). It’s amazing to be able to do this. On the down side, there are a million ads and lots of words to sift through, especially if I miss the “skip to recipe” button. (In fact, one person suggested that a murderer could confess the murder in every paragraph in an online recipe, but no one would ever catch them because we all hate the words so much and want to go straight to the recipe. But …. I digress!)

As I looked through my tattered recipes, I realized something is missing from the online searches that yield amazing recipes. There is a sterility to the process, a lack of emotional connection to the recipe. I realized that it was void of the memories that come with food-stained recipes from family members and friends.

There is the recipe for the egg and cheese breakfast casserole served on Christmas morning from Ann Coster, Every year in Cairo Ann had a big pancake breakfast for all of us. Moms talked while kids watched a video of Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. It was at one of those events where I lamented on wanting something fancier than scrambled eggs for Christmas morning. Ann’s eyes lit up and she shared the recipe. I still have it in Ann’s handwriting, a precious gift that cost her nothing but the time it takes to write out an index card of words. And every Christmas morning, that’s what we eat.

recipes, egg and cheese casserole

There’s the Thumbprint Cookie recipe from my mom, congo bar recipe from my maternal grandmother, affectionately known as Gramma K. There’s orange cheese bread from Genie and cranberry walnut sweet rolls from Cary; the peanut-butter kisses from Mary….the recipes go on and on.

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As I flip through them, I come to Never Fail Peanut Butter Fudge from my cousin, Kristine. There is a poignant pause in my recipe search. She wrote it long ago when I was getting married and it is written under her maiden name – Johnson. Kristine died on January 27, 2007 – it was my 47th birthday. She was only 2 years older than me. I stop and wonder if her family remembers this Never Fail Peanut Butter Fudge, its sweet goodness a distant memory. I think of her mom, my Aunt Ruth who died this past year, one of the smartest, loveliest women on the planet, and wonder if she passed on the recipe to Kristine.

recipes, never-fail peanut butter fudge

Like life itself, I have to move on, but not without a precious look back in time to my younger days where death seemed so far in the future and I seemed to have all the time in the world.

It’s these pauses and memories that I don’t get when I find a recipe online. It’s a bit like online relationships – they are enjoyable and can teach me a lot. But they are no substitute, no comparison to flesh and blood, body and bones, faces and hands of my in-person people.

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Winter Fruit Pie and the Taste of Memory

My father was not a cook. While my mother’s early journals record his cautious steps into baking cookies and occasional cakes, he was far more comfortable asking “What’s for dinner?” than he was making dinner.

It was in his last few years of life that he developed one baking specialty, and that was his famous Winter Fruit Pie.

While he was alive we never really knew what was in the pie. It was full of fruit, nuts, flavor, and texture, but the exact ingredients remained a mystery. I don’t think he purposely withheld the ingredients, I don’t think I ever asked. When complimented on his offering, Dad would just smile and willingly accept the praise.

In the fall of 2017 we knew that my father’s health was declining and that his days this side of Heaven were numbered. So it was that in October, on Canadian Thanksgiving, our extended family gathered together in Rochester, New York for a feast that could send a man straight to heaven.

We gathered outside at my brother’s house, seated around long tables, plates filled with every kind of Thanksgiving delicacy. Homemade rolls, mashed potatoes, gravy, turkey, vegetables, homemade cranberry sauce – it was all there and with it, the goodness of conversation and family banter. There was laughter and joy, running children and toddlers, new marriages and new grandchildren. It was glorious.

And for dessert, there was pie.

Because of my dad’s health decline, I had proudly designated myself the ‘Baker of the Winter Fruit Pie.’ “How hard could it be?” I said to myself and my dad. He smiled knowingly. My pie was terrible. It was dry and crumbly. It had none of the rich, moist sweetness characteristic of my dad’s recipe. I humbly acknowledged that, despite being a good baker, I had failed. Being the good-natured, easy person that he was, he ate it, remarking that’s “it was delicious!” But I knew better.

Just two weeks after that memorable weekend, my father died.

Last night I made Winter Fruit Pie. I had learned my lesson and wisely, I asked for the recipe in our extended family group chat. The aroma of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and fruit filled the kitchen and my heart. As I made it, taste testing at least once, my heart was full – full of gratitude and of the sweet taste of memories.

Feast days, like thanksgiving, are times of gathering and with the gathering comes memories and the taste of memories. Whether you are a family that sticks to die hard recipe traditions or a family that forges new foods and gathers new places, most of us will have the taste of memories as we fill our plates. It could be Grandma’s raisin cookies or YaYa’s baklava. Perhaps it’s saag served next to turkey, a tribute to a childhood spent in Pakistan, or spanakopita as a side dish. It could even be the ghastly brussels sprouts that your aunt made (and your mom made you eat.) Whatever it is, food at holidays is so much more than food. It is stories and memories, gathered pieces of history and tastes of belonging.

Food memories and feast days are part of the strong glue that hold families and friendships together. We taste, we remember, we laugh and we cry. We break bread together and with it there is an opportunity for resentments to dissolve, for the arguments and ideas that break us apart to be overcome by the sweet and savory flavors that bind us together.

This Thanksgiving, wherever you are, whatever you eat, may you know the joy of gratitude, the mystery of how friendships and families survive, the delight of making new memories, and the sweet taste of old memories.

And may your pie, whether it be pumpkin, apple, or winter fruit, be especially delicious.

On Launching our Children

Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.

Rachel Cusk

For a month I have wanted to write a piece about launching children. I don’t know much about parenting, despite having parented five who are now adults, but I do know something about the feelings that come with launching children. I also know that many of you are going through this for the first time. I’ve seen the pictures. I read the captions. More importantly, I can also guess the subtext, the unspoken, the words that are in your hearts and your journals because only those places can capture your true feelings.

From the time they put our children into our arms for the first time, we enter into a place and journey best descibed as a foreign land. Never have we been so confronted with our own weakness or strength, never have we been asked to do so much for so little. These small humans are part angel, part dictator, and part parasite. In one momentous event we enter a place of protection, responsibility, and love all combined and we are never quite sure which one is playing out at any given time. Perhaps it’s because they are so entwined. The incomparable Rachel Cusk says it well in her book A Life’s Work:

Having lived so high up in the bickering romantic quarters of love, it is as if I were suddenly cast down to its basement, its foundations. Love is more respectable, more practical, more hardworking than I had ever suspected.

Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they rarely look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

Suddenly we miss the round marks on the wooden coffee table because we miss the ones who made those marks so very much. The house is too quiet. There are too many cookies in the container, and in our case, too much hot sauce in the refrigerator.

So what of this launching? What can I offer you beyond words?

I offer you these things:

  • Trust your intuition – if you wake up in the night and you can’t get them off your mind, there is a reason. Call or text them. If they don’t answer, call someone who can check on them. Buy a plane ticket and go see them. You won’t regret it.
  • Try not to equate your university student not following in your faith path as lack of respect and love on their part. It’s not. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. As they journey forward, the faith of their mothers and fathers must be taken on and worn to become a part of their being, or not worn as they choose.
  • Send care packages. If you live far away and mail is not reliable from where you live, you can find people and places that will do this for you. In the United States, Spoonful of Comfort is one such company.* In the United Kingdom, this company could work for you.
  • Learn to release. This is the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. Releasing is a daily act of faith and trust. It is a daily giving up of our right to know what’s going on with our kids. We were editors of their stories for a long time – 18 years – but we are no longer the editors. Instead, we become the readers of some good and some hard stories. As we learn to release, we become better readers, better listeners, and better at journeying beside these children of ours.
  • Remember that from the beginning parenting has not been all light. There have been the shadows, otherwise how would we recognize the light? It’s easy as we enter the launching stage to imagine that all that came before was bright and light. But the truth is more complicated. Now we enter a stage where for awhile it may feel quite dark. Sophomore and junior years of university in particular can feel fraught with disillusioned youth, but the light will shine through and be all the more precious for the dark.
  • Don’t look to the right or to the left. If you look to one side you will be proudly preening wondering how you got so lucky with your kids; if you look to the other your shoulders will slump in dejected insecurity. Again I look to Rachel Cusk as source of wisdom and brilliant writing. She says that the public narrative of parenthood denies the light and shadow of reality and “veers crazily toward joy.” Nowhere is this more evident as on social media. Carefully curated feeds insult our hurting hearts and we wonder how the rest of these parents seem to do this thing so well. Remember – you are seeing only a public narrative. Grab a cup of tea on a dark day with any one of those parents and you will cry tears together. Parenting young adults levels our proverbial playing field.
  • Honor their journey. You’ve raised them for this. It’s true that you no longer play the same role – if you did, it would hold its own hard journey – but you are always and forever a part of the story. You’ve just traded places in who gets to tell it.

So there you have it. You’ve entered a new season. Before long, it will be normal, but before it gets that way enjoy the change in colors. Like leaves that fall to the ground too quickly, this too will some day be gone. In the mean time, eat those extra cookies. You wouldn’t want them to go stale.

*No compensation is received for this post!

When Siblings Rescue

During my junior year of high school I took Physics. Knowing that I wanted to be a nurse, I poured through the catalog of the school that I wanted to attend after high school and looked at the courses that were recommended. Chemistry was required; Physics just recommended. Intent on making sure I was accepted to the program, I decided I would take Physics and Chemistry. I’m normally not an overachiever, but call it delusions of grandeur or healthy self esteem, at the time I secretly fancied myself a brilliant scientist or, if not a scientist, than definitely a brilliant nurse.

Our school building was an old British church that had been repurposed as a school with a huge auditorium in the center and classrooms along the sides and upstairs. Physics class was held in the science lab, located at the back of the auditorium, up steep stairs, in the highest spot in the building. We sat on stools around large, rectangular tables surrounded by science in the form of long tables, beakers, formulas, posters and pictures. A sign saying “A Physics student took a drink, but he shall drink no more. For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4” served as a warning to all of us of the violent death we would undergo if we did not pay attention. Bunsen burners, beakers, pipets, droppers, and funnels became familiar equipment and goggles were a necessity.

Like most classes in Murree, the class size was small. There were perhaps 12 of us and a mixture of juniors and seniors. Importantly, I was the only girl in the class.

The year started out okay, but as summer turned into Autumn, I began to despise Physics class. From what I wore to what I weighed, I was fair game for intolerable teasing from every single guy, egged on by the teacher. I laughed right along with all of them until one spring day when I didn’t laugh anymore. I left class sobbing like my heart had broken in a million fractals. It was my brother Stan who saw me leave the school building sobbing. Though he had graduated a couple of years before, he was back for a short time working at the school. He heard my cry, hugged away my tears, and marched up to that Physics Lab in a full-blown rage.

I don’t know what Stan said, but I know his righteous anger burst forth like a canon. Physics class got better for me. Though I still could not wait for it to end, at least a certain measure of respect developed. Never again did I leave Physics class in tears. Stan had done what I could never have done. He had marched in there, and in righteous love had demanded that the bad behavior stop. It was an early lesson in advocacy, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

A few months later, my brilliant brother Tom arrived from the United States. Patiently he sat with me each evening, teaching me what the teacher could not because I was so wounded by the class. He coached me to the Physics finish line and I ended up the class with a B+. This was a miracle. It was an early lesson of sibling patience, it is a lifetime memory of sibling love.

That’s the thing with siblings. They just are. While others have to earn a place, siblings have it and you don’t really pay attention to them. Except when you think back on a childhood and the role they played, the times they teased you mercilessly always trumped by the times they stood up for you with rage or coached you with patience. You may be able to count the deep talks you had with siblings on one hand, but that’s okay. Because beyond the deep talks is the deeper understanding of what it is to grow up in the same places, to experience the same household with its strengths and weaknesses, to face life’s challenges together.

It’s been a year to the day since my brother Stan died. A year to the day since we received those awful text messages through the large family Whatsapp. A year to the day when the wretching sobs made me throw up and scream in a silent house. A year to the day that marked my waking up thinking daily about my sister-in-law, my niece, and my nephew. Anyone who has siblings will go through this at some point. Last February was our turn. It came too quick. It was too tragic. It shouldn’t have happened are all places I can’t go yet I go there anyway.

The week following his death was filled with some of the most remarkable love I have ever experienced in my lifetime, as a handful of us gathered in Thailand. We cried, talked, laughed, and comforted each other in that sacred space of grief. We drank mango smoothies and ate Thai curries, walked in gardens and basked in warmth while the Northeast I had left froze over. We did not know that a few weeks later a pandemic would upend the world and our grief would be eclipsed and upstaged by a worldwide crisis.

But it was, and so our grief was put on hold to make room for an angry public that enjoyed outrage so much that they were of no use to the truly grieving.

And now it has been a year. I do not have more words, but I do have more understanding of grief, more understanding of grace, more compassion, and more need for God. And I know, that Christ, who redeems all, is in every moment of this day.

O Christ, redeem this day.
I do not ask that these lingerings
of grief be erased, but that
the fingers of your grace
would work this memory as a baker
kneads a dough, till the leaven
of rising hope transforms it
from within,

into a form holding now in
that same sorrow the surety
of your presence, so that
when I look again at that loss,
I see you in the deepest gloom
of it, weeping with me,
even as I hear you whispering
that this is not the end, but only the still
grey of the dawn before the world begins.

And if that is so, then let that which
broke me upon this day in
a past year, now be seen
as the beginning of my remaking
into a Christ-follower more sympathetic,

more compassionate, and more conscious
of my frailty and of my daily
dependence upon you….”*

*Excerpt from Liturgy for the Anniversary of a Loss © 2017 Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey

On Duty & Dreaming

A couple of years ago my oldest daughter texted me with words that were deeply affirming, if a bit humorous. The text said “I am so glad that you were a mother so committed to leisure.”

I started giggling. Committed to leisure? If she only knew the guilt I felt for not doing enough. For not getting them into more sports and more ballet, for not insisting on more piano and flute. For not doing more crafts and music. The one thing I was really good at was reading and resting. I remember being on our front porch in Massachusetts, all of us just sitting, eating, and lounging. I don’t even remember the conversation – I just remember the summer breeze and being perfectly content.

Here she was affirming what I thought I did wrong. Affirming an unknown but fully experienced commitment to leisure.

I’ve thought a lot about that text in the past few years. Unbknownst to my daughter, it was profoundly moving, encouraging me out of a depth of insecurity about motherhood that I didn’t even realize I had.

I entered motherhood in the 25th year of my life, young by today’s standards. I remember the wonder with which I looked at my newborn daughter, her perfect toes, fingers, and truly rosebud mouth pursed up ready to try out the suck reflex. I remember thinking I had never known a love that could so utterly consume me. I remember the well of emotion, knowing in those first days postpartum that the world would have the potential to hurt my little human and I didn’t know what to do with that. All I could do was cry, and in those moments open my heart to God and his blessed mother, who surely knew hurt like few do.

As I walked into those early days, I still remember the lazy mornings of breastfeeding, the moments when only I knew how to comfort her and the infinite wonder of that reality. I dreamt a lot during those days of what our future family would look like. Would there be siblings? Of course! What would our family look like? What would our family be? Would my children be dreamers like I was, losing themselves in books and films, ever searching for beauty, always with a touch of longing? Our daughter was followed by five more children, and the dreaming days were over….or were they?

I found out that a mother’s walk is a balance between duty and dreaming. Duty is what gets you up in the morning when you know you have to get them to school and yourself off to work. Duty is what gets you up in the middle of the night when you realize that the rasping, animal like sound from the other room is your child who can’t breathe properly. Duty is what has you in the bathroom, a hot shower running full force as you anxiously wait for your child’s breathing to improve. Duty is what has you chauffering children to birthday parties and libraries, doctors visits and Sunday schools.

Dreaming is what keeps you hopeful. Dreaming is what you do as you curl up on the couch reading books in front of a wood stove. Dreaming is what has you taking your kids to Egypt to see their childhood homes, to Florida to build sandcastles on the beach, to Quebec City to wander the walled city. Dreaming is what inspires you to create home and place, memories and traditions. Dreaming is what helps you as you ask your child about colleges they are interested in attending or ideas for plays and stories. Dreaming is what keeps you alive as a mom, determined not to slip into a duty only ethos, because what joy is there in that?

Duty is what pays the bills, dreaming is what makes paying the bills worthwhile. Duty is duty. It is necessary and it is what makes dreaming possible. Dreaming is dreaming. It’s what makes duty possible.

I’m thinking about all these things as I go into the new year. About duty and about dreaming. How duty can creep up and before we know it – all of life is just duty. There is no dreaming. There is just drudgery. Hope is lost in the duty of living. And yet if life is just dreaming, then nothing will ever get done, and life will feel just as meaningless. Like in motherhood, duty and dreaming are a necessary balance. Maybe that is what has felt so difficult in this year of closed borders and closed coffee shops – that dreaming feels impossible and duty overwhelming.

In just a couple of days, 2020 will in an instant change to 2021. Duty will have me changing the clocks, making sure my calendar is up to date, that my work schedule is clear. Dreaming will have me curled up on the couch, committed to leisure and joy on New Year’s Day, writing in my journal and looking at airline tickets. Duty will get me up on the cold mornings in the winter when bed is far more tempting and all of life feels trapped in ice. Dreaming will give me the joy I need to see sunshine sparkling on icy trees and know that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”*

Here’s to duty and dreaming. Like truth and grace, they are an interwined, paradoxical necessity.

Happy New Year from Communicating Across Boundaries. Thank you for sharing the journey.


*Julian of Norwich

On Missing My Kids

There are days as a mom of adult kids where you miss your children so much that you physically ache. You feel it in your bones. It’s not the sharp pain of an acute appendicitis, rather, it’s the dull ache of arthritis. You remember each labor and delivery, the final push that ushered them into the world. You remember gazing at those eyes, nose, ears, mouth completely in awe of the mystery of birth, the mystery of motherhood.

You know in that moment of birth that you will never forget. Never. That these tiny humans that lived in your womb for nine months, sometimes more and sometimes less, are connected to you in an unfathomable mystery.

You know also, though you don’t want to think about it, that they are yours for only a time. After that, who’s to know?

You break inside for the knowledge that the world will sometimes hurt your child. You know this, because you are an adult and the world has not always been kind to you.

The years go by – some interminably slow, others far too fast. And then – they are adults.

You love the conversations. You love watching them with their friends. You love the unique place they hold in the world. You love watching them connect and find their place. And yet, they are no longer in your house. The daily check ins of “when will you be home?” no longer apply. This is when you know that when your mother says on the phone “I love you more!” it’s true. For you now know the immeasurable love of a mother for her children.

Parenting is a dance and you are in the stage called ‘slow jazz.’

I think about this today as I look at pictures on my shelf. I smile at each kid as though they are present when the reality is far different. I think about the parenting dance, the way it begins as a slow dance or ballet. The music is beautiful and haunting. That baby we take home from the hospital, from the orphanage, from the foster care system comes into our lives, and while everything changes, it’s a slow change. We have anticipated this for a long time. The baby blankets and onesies are purchased and waiting. We have bought or borrowed a crib for the little one. The curtain goes up and the ballet begins.

Every movement of that first baby feels recorded in our hearts and memories, it seems like forever. The first smile, the day they sleep through the night, their eating, pooping, sleeping habits all weave their way into our lives.

As another child comes the music changes and the slow dance stops, replaced by the chicken dance where there’s little grace, just a lot of squawking and moving. It’s fun but it’s exhausting.

Middle years are the Macarena and Bollywood. There’s a rhythm and grace and fun. You got this thing. You can criticize other parents because wow – your kids are amazing and their kids? Better beware because they are headed straight to the state penitentiary by way of the principal’s office. But not yours. Oh. No. Yours are amazing and talented and oh you are so thankful for Grace. The Grace given to you of course – not that bestowed on others.

Every parent thinks they dance well during the middle years!

Then the teen years come and you bow humbly even as the dance changes from the Macarena and Bollywood (which you love) to that of rock and roll where your head is splitting and you don’t understand the words but you think you caught a swear in there. It’s so fast you are spinning. The activities, the angst, the long talks punctuated by angry silence, the fun yet exhausting dance of rock and roll.

And then comes parenting adult children. 

And suddenly it all changes. It becomes like jazz music: you agree on the notes and then you improvise. Negotiation becomes a key word. The parental dance goes back and forth between being too worried and too involved and throwing your hands up saying “Well, it’s their life!” But even though you throw those words around, you are always there waiting. When the text comes at midnight, you hear the buzz. When the call comes in early morning hours, you know to take it. When they make decisions you disagree with, you know that you love them fiercely and will love and pray for them until the day you die.

Slow jazz is in the background, but no longer a central part of your life. The furniture is rearranged and the house echoes with empty. You miss them deep in your soul, but you know you’ve raised them with wings to fly and they are exercising those wings well.

There are times when you pour over photo albums and you remember when they were so little. And you think “I thought they were so big. I expected so much out of them.” But you realize now that they were so little and the world was so big.

And though the dance has changed dramatically through the years, you pray that even as you occasionally stumble and fall you will dance every step with grace.


Note: Excerpts from this were first published in 2014.

And So We Gather

It is late afternoon as I sit on the beach, watching the waves creep closer and closer to where we are resting. I hear sounds from others enjoying the ocean – a father calling his daughter, a grandmother telling her granddaughter not to swim too far, and other quieter voices but none interrupt my deep sense of peace and rest.

It will soon be high tide and the beach area will almost disappear. The tides in our area are pronounced, going out as far as a quarter mile on some beaches. It is amazing to all of us, but particularly to the first time visitor.

We have gathered with family, making sure all are well and virus free. While gathering with family at any time is special, given the loss, stress and sadness of the last months this feels like the best of gifts.

Perhaps this is the biggest lesson or gift of the pandemic. That which we thought was certain is no longer so. That which we thought was negotiable, available, or practical has all changed. We have developed a heightened awareness of what is a right and what is a gift. Most things, I have learned, are not rights.

Perhaps too, we have exchanged expectation for hope – a good and necessary exchange.

On the one hand, gathering as a group may seem foolish in these times. We are, after all, in a world wide season of uncertainty. But perhaps that is exactly why it feels even more important to gather.

A few years ago during my first visit to Iraq, I remember talking to an Iraqi woman who had to flee her home during the time of ISIS. I remember saying “How did you survive?” – one of those foolish things that Westerners sometimes say to those who have endured more than they can imagine. I remember her looking at me and saying “You keep on living, because the alternative is not an option, and it surprised even us how strong we were!”

The living can’t quit living because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can’t because they don’t. The light that shines into darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones.

Wendell Berry

And so we gather with good food, the occasional and expected small frustrations, laughter, good conversation and games, ever understanding that we must all keep on living, perhaps the act of resistance and love that is most needed during times of uncertainty.