Coffee Mugs

I had loaded the dishwasher in the late afternoon. Was it only yesterday? School had dismissed, but he was still at work, and I was already thinking of dinner preparations. Then, the phone rang. It was one of his colleagues. He had suddenly become ill… had collapsed… had some kind of episode… and was taken to the hospital. I grabbed keys and was out the door.

It was the coffee mugs that finally made me cry. There were just so many of them. They had come to us in small batches around holidays, and at the end of each term. Most came from the dollar store or Walmart. Some were filled with sweets or accompanied by a small stuffed toy. They had cards attached bearing sentiments like “To The Best Teacher!” and “Thank you for helping me learn”.

I was always happy for him, and very proud of these expressions of respect and affection from his students.

He shared the sweets with me and put the stuffed toys on a shelf in his home office, squeezed in between the books, binders, notepads, and pencil caddies. The coffee mugs went to the kitchen cupboard for daily use. I appreciated them as practical, tangible, rewards for the time, effort, and emotional energy that he invested in his job, in his students.

I don’t remember the drive to the hospital, other than the effort I made to stay within the speed limit, and the fear that sat like a boulder in my gut. Then, somehow, I was there, being shown into the exam room where he lay quietly on a gurney.

As time passed and the cupboard shelves slowly filled with more mugs, I started to feel a little irritated. Couldn’t they think up a new kind of gift? I couldn’t remember which mugs were actual gifts from students, and which few were anonymous exchange gifts from staff and faculty holiday parties. Although I expected him to feel a little sentimental, I assumed  that he had also lost track of the names and faces of the givers. Seriously, who could remember? How many mugs could one teacher use?  The trouble was that he did use them. Not only were the shelves full, but the dishwasher always had several gifted mugs in each load. And the “pretty” mugs that matched our plates? Seldom used. It offended my sense of… I don’t know… how things should be…?

American Flag Mug

I held his hand, while they asked questions. Had he ever had this or that condition? What was his family background? Was I alright to go home alone?  Could they help me in any way?  Dazed, I answered as best as I could.

While he always chose one of his mugs, I served him coffee in the “pretty” mugs, whenever I had a chance. I also mentioned the full cupboard once or twice, but he hated getting rid of anything. Finally, during a spring cleaning spree, I took all of the gifted mugs out of the cupboard and placed them on the counter.  I asked him to help me sort out which, if any, could be given to the local thrift shop, to relieve the crowded shelves. Reluctantly, he looked them over and searched his memory, slowly picking out two or three that he couldn’t attach a name or face to. I quickly whisked those away to a box for donations. Whew! I felt progress had been made. I thought, in a few months, maybe we can cull a few more.

Then, he began to pick up the other mugs, one by one, and to tell me stories about each student who had honored him with their humble gift. There was Marlene, who no one knew needed glasses, until he noticed her straining to see his notes on the board. And Omar, with a learning disability, undiagnosed until this teacher brought certain behaviors to the attention of the school psychologist. And years later, the graduations where they asked him to pose with them for photos. While I saw a mug covered with dead presidents, he saw Paloma, who remembered his love of history, and brought a souvenir from her special field trip to Washington DC. The generic holiday mug that said “Ho, ho, ho!” became Alex. And of course, the Santa mugs were Debbie and Sophia, the giggly, yet studious duo who liked to hang out in the classroom after school to straighten books and sort papers. The motorcycle mug was Joaquin, and the one with the U.S. flag was Destiny. For him, the mugs took on the personalities of the givers.

 I stroked his cool brow as they told me what had happened, and stated their diagnosis.9731318 MUG SANTA SHAPE CERAMIC

The memories didn’t stop with those who gave gifts. He recalled their friends and classmates, many whose dads were not around, and who needed him, not only as a teacher, but as a positive male role model. The memories also branched out to the families of his students. As a result of his efforts, Marlene’s mother, who had been struggling to find work and to learn English, was put in touch with a community adult education program, and was hired as an assistant in the school library. There were two girls whose mom, “the cake lady”, always baked for class birthday parties. Remember when their big brother became an intern to a US Congresswoman, and later was elected to the school board?  The time when Anisa joyfully told him she had been diagnosed with PTSD. She wasn’t crazy! What she had was really “a thing”! When Destiny returned from a family vacation at the beach, heartbroken about the uncle who had saved her life, only to lose his own in a powerful undercurrent. There were Monique and Tina, who constantly misbehaved, but who made a beautiful farewell poster for him when he left to teach at another school. There was Roman, a tough kid who talked back and resisted learning with everything in him, yet excitedly jumped up out of his seat to greet “Mr!” when his teacher showed up to fill in for a different class. Yes there were quite a few mugs, but so very many more memories!

I caressed the salt and pepper stubble of his pale cheek, as they discussed the actions that needed to be taken.

Ducati 750 Sport motorcycle illustration Coffee Mug

His nostalgic smile and the soft, far-away look in his eyes completely dispelled my negative feelings. Every one of those mugs served up a warm helping of recollections with his morning coffee. With a renewed sense of gratitude, I put the mugs away, realizing that the kitchen cupboard was much more than just a practical storage area. It had become a sacred place, a kind of magic portal to a time and place full of tears and smiles, trials and triumphs, and of watching his students learn and grow. Those mugs formed the background for a significant chapter of his life story.

The hard lump of fear in my belly gradually softened and spread until it surrounded me like a shroud.

Needless to say, the precious memory mugs continued to be used regularly, and the “pretty” mugs stayed on the shelf, untouched, for the most part. The only difference was in my perspective. I had come to understand that he actually did remember the giver of each and every mug, and that those memories helped him stay connected to the positive aspects of a very demanding profession. He kept those memories alive, and kept working long hours, late nights, and weekends, striving to do his best for his students. He also kept sharing their stories and his hopes for them with me, while he drank his morning brew from any one of his special mugs. Life went on.

I was lost in a fog, but somehow able to keep moving. They said “go home and rest, for now”.

All_pres_color2 MugsI drove home through the darkness, and somehow accomplished my nighttime routine. I fed the dogs, and locked up the house for the night, but my thoughts were still with him. Exhausted in every way, I finally slept, waking once or twice, only to quickly close my eyes at the memory of the hospital room, his hair fanned out on the crisp white pillowcase, his face, peaceful, but so pale. This morning, I still moved around as if drugged, slow and unsure. My routine was full of holes. The things I regularly did out of love, out of a desire to lighten his load didn’t need doing. There was no breakfast to prepare for him, only my bowl of cereal. No lunch to pack for him to take to work. No need to make sure he had his phone, school keys, and backpack full of textbooks and graded papers. I did my best to skip past the missing parts of the morning, feeling my way, a fragmented soul lacking enough light to see through the darkness.

I searched for things I could do to keep moving, all the while talking to myself. Life is about change… I fed the dogs and let them out to run. Some changes are bigger and scarier than others… I grabbed a broom to sweep the little porch. Try to think positively… Resolutely, I returned to the kitchen and started to unload the dishwasher. No more lesson planning weekends… First put away the plates and bowls. No more parent conference evenings… then the silverware goes into the drawer. Just keep moving… Pulling out the top rack, I put away drinking glasses. No more grading papers late at night… Lastly, I reached for his coffee mugs. Lifting the first one, I was struck by the fact that I was holding one of his treasures and I closed my eyes. There would be no more students with their gifts… For a moment, I felt as though he had left that hospital bed and was there with me. Memories will live on… Slowly, lovingly, I placed each mug on the shelf remembering the all-night grading sessions, the exhaustion he felt so much of the time. He could rest now… The stories he frequently shared with me about the students who needed extra help, the ones that made him laugh, and sadly, the troubled ones, those that had he felt unable to reach. The hard work was finished… The memories from those years washed over me. With one hand on the cupboard door, and the other still lingering on the final shelved mug, I stood for some time, tasting salty tears, clinging to my memories of the strong man he had been, drawing strength for the days ahead. Life is about change… Slowly, reluctantly, I closed the door, leaving the mugs in the cool, sacred darkness of the cupboard. All the memories, his and mine, I tucked away in my aching heart.

Posted in Short stories | 2 Comments

Gray-out

Bright sunlight streams through the open blinds,
But it’s dim in here.
The spring wind rushes through the trees and around the house,
But I’m surrounded by nagging whispers.
It’s early afternoon, and we’ve just had lunch,
The clouds are looming closer all the time.
My husband has been ill and is recovering, feeling chatty,
But I can barely respond.
I treasure our talks about books and brains and plain old bullshit,
But today I can’t.
The room is peaceful and quiet, our dogs snoozing on the carpet.
I am a storm, building to some terrible climax.
I stare out the window at the sunny day, trying to dispel my own turmoil,
I feel as if I may fly into millions of tiny particles.
I look at my hands, so still in my lap.
Why are they not trembling?
How can everything appear so normal?
How, when I am caught in this maelstrom?
My face smiles at my husband’s joke,
While I try to hold on a little longer.
The minutes tick by, the hours compress more and more.
I can’t ask for help. I can’t describe the terror…
I tell myself there is nothing to fear, yet I can’t escape.
So I wait. I keep breathing.
The meds will kick in soon. I’ve been here before and survived.
I find the strength to walk out on the porch, let the sun touch my skin.
The good, strong wind begins to punch through my darkness.
Fifteen, twenty minutes. There, the cold, murky fog is subsiding.
The whispers retire to some dark place, to wait for the next storm.
I’ve made it through. Once again, I’ve run the gauntlet of panic, and come out
Alive.

Perspective

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Friends

I don’t have many. I have quite a few acquaintances, but friends are hard to come by. I’ve recently been questioning why. Do I keep people at a distance, afraid of closeness, commitment, obligation? Are my expectations of friendship unrealistic? What are my expectations? Let’s get really basic… What is a friend? Further exploration is needed…

Posted in For the Spirit | 2 Comments

My Epic Battle with a House Centipede

Today, I woke up to see one of these on my ceiling. house centipedeMy husband advised that Lysol would probably kill the creepy thing. He also advised me NOT to climb up on a chair to spray it. Good thinking. He saved us from a trip to the E.R. See, once I sprayed the Lysol, the many legged thing ran across the ceiling, toward ME! So, without any thought as to where I was going to land, I fled in a series of hop/steps, while babbling in a totally unfamiliar language. Hubby says I approximated the river dance. movie psycho scared face(Not a good thing to do from on top of a chair.)

Anyway, the thing was still on the ceiling, very much alive. I tried the Lysol again, with similar results, twice. Between fits of hysterical laughter, my speech was becoming more unintelligible and more banshee-like. The final spray attempt ended when I actually hit the creature. It twitched and fell from the ceiling, MUCH to close to me for comfort. The Lysol can went flying, as I screeched a desperate war whoop and leapt (most un-gracefully) out of range. I caught my breath and recovered from another paroxysm of laughter, and trailed my prey as it slowly crawled across the floor into our bathroom. One (or 3…or 4) good smack(s) with my slipper put the hairy little beastie out of its misery.

Throughout this epic battle, hubby is lying in bed, ROARING with laughter, and occasionally offering strategic advice. I could imagine how I appeared, and have dissolved into giggles several time since then.

After things calmed down, Hubby looked up the critter online. It’s known as a House Centipede (’cause they like to live in houses) and it can sting, but no worse than a bee. That being said, I’m not fond of being stung, so these scary things can live in our yard, garden, woodpile, etc. But NOT in the house of the River Dance Banshee. Lysol and slippers are always locked and loaded!!Home alone spider

Posted in Aint Life a Hoot?! | 7 Comments

Unforgettable Baked Beans

Ahhhh… Baked Beans!

I was talking with a couple of friends at work, and the subject of food came up. I work in a fast food restaurant, so this happens pretty often! Anyway, I mentioned how good our hamburgers would taste with baked beans. My boss asked if I had a recipe… Boy, do I!

This is the recipe my mom used, and I think my grandma used it before her. To be honest, I don’t measure the ingredients any more. It’s more fun to add approximate amounts and taste (frequently!) until it’s just right.

(The measurements are kind of like the Pirate’s code according to Captain Hector Barbossa, Disney’s ferocious pirate of the Caribbean… “more what you call guidelines than actual rules”.)

So have fun tasting and adjusting ingredients to your preference.

Oh, and these beans aren’t just for supper. They’re also delicious cold, and great to take along on a picnic, with cold fried chicken, and potato salad… brownies… watermelon… iced tea… ahhh… that’s a good memory from my childhood.

picnic tableConsider this a bonus recipe for memories! You just add your favorite people, some cold beer, and a great picnic spot! Then, relax. ; )

BEWARE!!   As I described the recipe to my friends, my boss said “Oh! my husband will love these!”  I must warn you, as I did her,” you may not love him for a while… you might need to sleep in separate rooms!” Some of my funnier childhood memories surround the after effects of these delicious beans… who could fart loudest, longest, and smelliest!! Beano, anyone?

I hope you enjoy making these baked beans, picnic basket mt viewand lots of good memories too!

Baked Beans – Shortcut or Scratch       

Shortcut – Makes 4 servings

3 slices bacon

½ cup chopped onion

one 13 oz. can of pork and beans in tomato sauce

¼ cup ketchup

2 tbsp. brown sugar, or maple syrup, or molasses

2 tsp. prepared mustard

In a skillet, cook bacon, adding onion when there is enough grease in skillet. Cook until onion is tender, but not brown. Drain grease. (You can skip this step if you’re in a hurry.)

To bake in oven, in 1 ½ quart casserole dish, combine all ingredients and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour, or to desired consistency

To cook on stove top, in a medium saucepan, combine all ingredients and cook over low heat about 15 minutes or to desired consistency, stirring frequently.

Scratch… Mmmmm! Makes 10-12 servingsbaked beans

1 lb. dry navy beans, great northern beans, or red beans

¼ lb. bacon or salt pork, cut up

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup maple syrup or molasses

¼ cup brown sugar

1 tbsp. prepared mustard

½ cup ketchup

½ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. pepper

Rinse beans. In a 4 ½ quart Dutch oven* combine beans and 8 cups cold water. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand for 1 hour. (Or skip boiling water and soak beans overnight in a covered pan.) Drain and rinse beans.

In the same pan combine beans and 8 cups fresh water. Bring to boiling: reduce heat. Cover and simmer about 1 ¼ hours or till tender, stirring occasionally. Drain beans, reserving liquid.

In a skillet, cook bacon, adding onion when there is enough grease in skillet. Cook until onion is tender, but not brown. Drain grease. (You can skip this step if you’re in a hurry.)

In a 2 ½ quart casserole or bean pot combine cooked beans, bacon and onion (cooked or not, your choice). Stir in 1 cup of reserved bean liquid, molasses or maple syrup, brown sugar, mustard, salt, and pepper.

Bake, covered in a 300 degree oven about 2 ½ hours or to desired consistency, stirring occasionally. If necessary, add additional reserved bean liquid.

*Or use a crock pot/slow cooker and follow time/temp directions for beans. I soak my dry beans overnight, then slow cook them the next morning. That afternoon, I combine ingredients in the crock pot and a couple of hours later, we have baked beans for supper.

Posted in Recipes | Leave a comment

The Old Warrior

Saturday morning, I went downtown to purchase a homemade pumpkin pie. A nice young woman bakes them from fresh pumpkins, using an old family recipe. Then she sells them in front of the food co-op. While her kids were giggling and wiggling, keeping warm under a blanket, we chatted for a bit. She told me she works as a secretary, and goes to school. She also writes online, under Spirit Words. I liked the sound of that; it was like opening a special door.

I was still thinking of that door, when an old man walked up to us and announced “I am Native American, Cheyenne-Kiowa, from Oklahoma.” The backpack he carried marked him as homeless. His clothes were worn, but they were clean. His skin was a beautiful dark brown, and his eyes showed his age. I told him I was also born in Oklahoma, and that my great, great grandma was Cherokee. He smiled at me. The writer of Spirit Words chided her little ones, to stay out of the way of passersby. The old man pointed to the two children, and said “I went to war for them, for children. I am not much, but I am someone. Just a warrior.” He looked at me and softly said “I went to war. I was a machine gunner. When I came back, I had a hard time.” I looked into his eyes, saw the pain, and just as softly, answered “I bet you did.” He asked if I might have a dollar to spare, and then he kept talking. I saw a couple of dollars folded in the palm of his hand. I fished in my pocket and reached to touch his hand, giving him a folded bill, while trying to preserve his dignity. He said “I served my country. I’m just a warrior.” I told him he was an Honorable Warrior, and he served with honor, and I thanked him. He was quiet for a moment, the he said “I heard Cher passed away. She’s Cherokee. So beautiful. I’m a old man. Gotta go sometime.” Another pause, I said “We all do. Until then, we walk the Beauty Way, right?” He smiled and answered that he tried to. He asked me, “Sister, you want a Indian name?” I felt my smile grow and answered, “Yes, I do!” He bowed his head slightly, closed his eyes, and softly sang for a few moments, first in his language, then in English. I heard only a few of his words; sunshine, beauty, smile, flowers, eyes. Then he raised his head and opened his eyes to meet mine. With a beautiful smile, he said “That’s it. Sunflower is your name.” “Sunflower.” I said, and thanked him. He talked to us a little more, mostly repeating his heritage, and his war experience, while he watched the kids playing. Then he touched both of our hands, thanked us, and slowly walked away.

I watched him go, feeling a strange mix of happy and sad. I hoped he would get a nice meal, and not drink his money away. And it was his money, not charity. He made a good trade with me. Of course, I supposed that he might give Indian names to lots of folks, maybe even the same name. Then I thought of the pain in his eyes, of his loneliness, and of his sacrifice for all Americans, Native or not. I decided to believe the sincerity that I thought I saw in his beautiful, weathered old face. I said bye to the pie lady, and headed home with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. Funny, the extraordinary things that can happen when you least expect them. I went to get a pie, and came home with a new name, and the blessing that came with it. I’m writing this down, so I can keep the memory of the writer of Spirit Words and the Old Warrior, and how they both blessed my day. I hope, in some way, that my story also blesses you.

Gail ~ Sunflower

Posted in For the Spirit | 1 Comment