A Different Kind of Gratitude

I cook at church. A lot.  I feed people whenever several gather, when fellowship around a meal is requested. What I don’t do is look for credit, for gratitude, because I know I am really doing it for me. The kitchen has fed my mental health, been my sanctuary, allowed me to get out of the house and serve without engaging too much. No one is ever sure if I am crying because of the onions or a broken heart. It is a blessing for me to be there. Thus as the thank you come in, I feel a twinge of guilt. I deflect, I try to explain how I am given a chance to breathe while I chop and prep and wash dishes. Rarely do folks understand, they still are grateful. It feels awkward, uncomfortable, wrong, to say you are welcome. Yet a gentlemen called me out on this very habit while I was still wearing my coat, when I had just walked into to service this past sunday and I have pondered his words ever since. 

His wife shared with me that someone in the first service had raised me up as a joy for a luncheon I had served the previous week. Yikes, I said. I should avoid first service people I said. Still coated, bearing the weight of my bible and my huge purse, I hadn’t even settled in yet and already someone was saying my name outlaid and telling me thank you. Danger Will Robinson! As his wife and I talked, he said, you know you could just say thank you for the compliment. Freeze frame, all movement stopped, no air in building. So I began to share with him how I am blessed by the opportunities to cook, so i started in the litany of blessings I receive. Yet he persisted, he didn’t let me go. He said it could be both and to say thank you. He said he sees women everyday at the university who have no ability to accept a compliment. He teaches them to do so. I learned in that moment to avoid this man and to also try to block his words but they won’t leave me alone. 

I know that men and women respond differently to praise. Yep, a huge generalization but still. Women deflect, they say “this old thing?” or “it was on sale” or “it is a blessing to me.” Men high five and joke and flex their muscles. and they say thank you.  I have long wondered at the difference, secretly felt pride in the humility women express.  Yes, I know how crazy that sounds and surely comes from some learned behavior as a child. Girls are demure, they look away shyly, they poo-poo praise. And more often than not, they feel under appreciated, they struggle to get recognition for their work, they are paid less and do more. They wonder why men on the same team get the spotlight and the glory. Girls, we are doing this to ourselves, in part because we can’t say thank you when receiving said credit, said compliments, said glory. 

I could argue that humility is Godlike, that our place in heaven will have more Milano cookies and mugs of always steaming coffee than the men who take credit in this world. In fact scripture says we are to do and pray and make food secretly, lest our rewards be here rather than at the feet of Jesus. I do argue that, usually. Yet this man’s words keep bugging me, are still rolling around in my mind days later. Maybe there is a way to have both. He told me, when someone gives you a present, you say thank you. Say thank you now, when they give the gift of gratitude. I personally don’t like wise men much, I prefer to keep my own twisted counsel. How can I argue with this logic?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. A day to show our grateful hearts to all around. Even in a horrible year, my heart swells with thanks for all that I have, all those who love me in spite of myself. Being grateful is not my challenge. Accepting gratitude is. Therefore, tomorrow, I will say thank you when someone says this is the best cheesecake they have ever eaten. I will say thank you when someone says they like my sweater, that old thing I have worn a hundred times. I will practice a new kind of gratitude. Maybe a little girl will witness these exchanges and wonder at my audacity and also say thank you when I tell her she set the table beautifully. Maybe the next time I see this man I will tell him he has been working on my soul, and thank him for it. Or more likely, I will duck into the kitchen and start up the dish machine, clean off the prep table. 

I am thankful for each of you who chose to take a moment and read my blog, for those of you who tell me my words matter to you. I am thankful for friends and family and friends who are family and I am thankful for being convicted before I get my coat off. The pastor can preach every week about our souls and I am truly marked by his sermons. Yet what happens in the hallway sometimes has more impact. Sorry Pastor, your people are preaching outside of the sanctuary and it is good. Thank you. You are welcome. On this Thanksgiving, will you join me in accepting gratitude as well as giving it?

Chasing My High

I remember learning in the parent group while my son was in rehab the first time that the addict is forever chasing that first high. Nothing can compare with the initial use, the chemistry is forever altered, it requires ever more of the substance to achieve any pleasurable results. Yet the user knows how amazing it feels, remembers the euphoria. So the chase continues. I think holiday gatherings are much like this for me.

I love thanksgiving, I love cooking and decorating and filling my table with friends and family. I chase the high of gratitude filling the air like the sweet smell of marijuana at an outdoor concert. I just know if I provide the setting, put all the pieces in place, grace will overflow like wine from a shakily poured brown bottle in an alley. I expect card games after the meal, laughter rising up, children running amok, a party worthy of the noise control. I am chasing a high long gone. I cook for two days, plan much longer. I scour Pinterest for table doo-dads, I write on chalkboards. Like the heroin user setting up the needle, spoon, the rope to tie around my arm, my high begins with the process. The anticipation of what is to come generates energy, I barely sleep. Excitement builds, I know my high is coming. But just like the addict who is stuck remembering that one great time, I am forever disappointed. I know I am expecting too much, I want to recreate that one event or a compilation of wonderful thanksgivings without telling everyone their part in my play. Still, it is thanksgiving dammit. Where is the gratitude? Where is the grace? Why aren’t we playing cards? Why did no one write on the board or fill out their little cards at the table? I was left feeling like a drive through, albeit one with couches and a tv for everyone to pass out on after the meal. Coming right in time for the meal, leaving immediately after or taking a nap, not contributing to my high. I was left wanting.

It has taken me days to realize the pressure I put on everyone else to fill me with gratitude. I wanted everyone else to get me high, to load me up on this one day. Just as an addict is looking externally for fulfillment, I forgot that I am in charge of my own joy. I forgot that grace was still at our table, that I had indeed provided the setting for each person to dine but also to rest. The rush of their lives doesn’t allow for that, just stopping for a while was a gift, something I know they are grateful for, something they treasure about our closeness. Because the day didn’t go as I planned I lost sight of my own gratitude. I missed out on the real high of the day.

The leftovers are gone, the fine china stored again. My own nap has restored me. I have resisted putting up the Christmas decorations, something I usually do the weekend after the big turkey fest. Instead, I am reflecting on my own lack of thanks, my own need for others to fill me up. The pumpkins and gourds, the oranges and yellows have stayed put around the house until I achieve my own sobriety, until I can write on my own chalkboard. Reviewing the 12 steps is enlightening, reminding me that the hole I was trying to fill is God-sized.

Here are the 12 Steps as defined by Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I’m not sure which step I’m on, I know holidays are rough, I may slide back as Christmas looms and our household is rocky right now. I may try to force others into my mental images of great family gatherings in order to achieve my jolly, my merry. One day at a time, though. For now, it is enough that I know my high comes from the Most High, that there will never be a perfect gathering here on earth, certainly not around my dining room table. I think my sanity is being restored, I am grateful for that. To all who gathered here, I apologize for not finding your very presence to be enough. I am sorry for wanting more from you, adding strings you couldn’t see. That is my defect, please consider joining me for coffee and cookies and a chat and a nap if you need. I am thankful for all of you, I really am.


Love Gifts Across Time

The turkey was in the oven, needing only broth and herbs added in 20 minutes, while Chef and I and our friend along with the beasts headed out for a quick 1 mile walk in the local edition of the turkey trot. I left explicit instructions for the woman who has cooked her whole life, I left the broth measured in a cup, the herbs in a bowl. I left knowing there was a good chance I would come back home to disaster. Upon returning I found she had turned the oven off, the broth from the noodles was in the roasting pan, almost overflowing, the herbs still sat on the counter.

My mother-in-law has alzheimer’s. It is still early in the disease, an ugly limbo where we aren’t sure how much intervention to take, how far to step in, how much to take away from her. Chef still wants to ask her, wants her to be his mother who tells him rather than be the one to parent her. It is an ugly transition, one I can’t say we are doing well. She has 3 boys, all who have benefitted from her active involvement in their lives. They are resisting the change. No one wants to step up, I understand their resistance and yet push, push my Chef. I pepper him with questions: “Did you check her medicine? Do you know when her next appointment is? Did you set up a meeting with all the brothers?” This is not helpful, my powerless matches his, we all are coping with the loss of all that is her differently. Thus, I was determined this Thanksgiving was going to be special, centered around her even if she wasn’t aware.

It began on Wednesday when I turned on Pandora to play while we were all tasking, I chose a 50’s classic station. Chef winked at me as she said over and over how each song was her favorite, asked how I found that song to play. She thrilled in the music, I delighted in her happiness. I snuck upstairs to let the tears flow, to thank God for the opportunity to bring joy to her. She followed me around, asking questions that I had answered only moments before. When is Plum’s birthday? (Last month, she made the cake.) Do you have just one cat? (remember, the other one is out on couch.) Where is Chef? (he just went into the garage, he will be right back) Where is Plum? (He will be back tomorrow) Do you need to get Plum off the bus? (He is with Mama, he will be back tomorrow) Is it time for Plum to come yet? (sigh).

I found tasks for her, simple things that ended up not so simple. Heart-breaking questions regarding which how to place the silverware next to the plates, complete inability to follow the pattern around the table. Dishes to wash, cats to feed. Still, I rejoiced that she was with us for this time. She asked what pies I was making, wondered about a butterscotch one. I have never made that, ever. Never considered it. I made it this year, a quick edition to the menu. She makes the cream pies, that has always been her thing. She asked, I found a way to deliver, scared I would ruin it, frightened it wouldn’t taste right. I forgot that it didn’t have to be perfect, it just had to be. I let her lick the spatula, she loved the pie.

She forgot to bring a necklace to match her outfit, she has hundreds at home. I found one to share with her. She forgot a sweater, I gave her one of mine. Each act of nurturing allowed me to say thanks for the years of her generosity, the years she showed up for every surgery, every party, every school event. I kept track of her drink, her phone, her book. I kept track of her. I ached when she came down for the meal on Thursday and her hair was a mess, she is a hairdresser by trade. Her collar was tucked under, she was a bit of a mess. I gently straightened her up as I passed by, tasking, running to complete the pre-meal prep.  “Lisa, what do you need me to do?” She never used to ask, she just knew. I asked her to set the table. I laid out placemats, plates, gave her the exact number of silverware. She asked how it was supposed to go, repeatedly. She just couldn’t remember. Fork next to knife, some places had 2 spoons, some not at all. We sorted it out as my heart ached.

During the meal, several times throughout the days, I found myself snapping at Chef. “Hey, stop teasing her.” “Don’t talk to her like that.” “Stop pestering her.” His mother who has always felt comfortable as the butt of any joke as long as it brought laughs, the woman who laughed with us all, I felt so overly protective I was battling with her son. Warning glances from him unheeded, I just couldn’t back off. Our views of her are no longer the same, maybe never really were. He has history, the childhood that carries both the joys and the hurts. I have mostly just deep appreciation for who she has been to me, the mom I didn’t have. Our early years were not so easy, I battled for my place next to Chef, thought I needed to claim my territory. I really just needed to open up more space. She wanted me too, not just him. I am one of the lucky wives who can tell mother-in-law stories that are both hilarious and tongue-in-cheek, no rancor or anger or hurt to be found. I was fighting with Chef over his mother, probably millions of wives were doing the in kitchens across the country. Ours was an uncommon battle maybe. I was claiming her, mine, back off.

I soaked up this holiday, one in which I knew it could be a last. We don’t always get that knowledge, that gift to really absorb and be present. I will rest easy knowing I won’t be consumed by “what-if’s” and “if only’s.” I realize we are moving into a time where she is child-like, fortunately I love children. I have unlimited patience for them, for answering questions and teaching how complete tasks. I may be facing unbearable heartache, but for this holiday, I gave her my attention, my all. Just as she has given to me. Thank God for the chance, one more time.


Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving week is here, my favorite holiday of all. No gifts, just food, just enjoying who ever shows up at the table. I love the meal, I love the cooking and planning and setting the table. I love that every year I plan for those I know will be here and Chef says late in the game, “Would it be okay if I invited a couple more?” Every year. I know my Chef, he can’t bear to think anyone would spend the day alone. Our table always is big enough, there is always enough food for more. But more than the meal, I especially relish the spirit of gratitude that descends upon us.

Remembering years past, previous tables and guests who won’t join us this year, I can’t get lost in wishing. While it would be amazing to collect people and just keep adding more chairs, more plates, I know that memories will have to do. Saying grace together before our feast, captured in pictures and forever in my heart, these meals make each new one richer. Laughter and stories echo around the dining room, we still remember those who are dining elsewhere, their place at our table forever etched in our history. I pull out recipes, consider that this is the favorite of my daughter, I remember her licking spoons and sneaking tastes. Another recipe calls to mind my mother, the best cook ever, who instructed me on my first time cooking the meal over the phone, my notes are on the back of envelopes, still tucked away in my recipe box.  I think about my son who mostly likes the desserts, prefers to eat without all the fanfare, making huge plates of leftovers after everyone is gone.  We used to always celebrate with a neighboring family, they didn’t cook anything, loved everything we made. They always brought something from the store, a pie and a great bottle of wine. They stayed the longest, late into the evening, laughing, oh how we laughed.  Mama has been with us for most of the last 7 years now, she loves sweet potatoes, so much so that when she was breastfeeding Plum he turned orange!  A couple of years ago we served our meal to parents of each of our good friends, mothers who would soon pass away. These images of sweet women sitting at our table, everyone loving them with gentleness and care, will remain with me forever.

This year has brought many changes to our lives and yet we are moving forward with our meal, our celebration of thanks. We continue our tradition of cooking, cleaning, shopping, preparing a feast and gathering around a table. One day, for just a few hours, together to remember who we are to each other, in that moment. To create some new pictures, to build new memories.  The food is always delicious, the clean up a chore, yet I cannot abandon this one holiday and all it brings.

Our chairs will be filled out this year with our Korean friends, we celebrate with them often. Their son is the same age as Plum, only weeks apart. They are expecting a baby girl soon, just a few months after Mama’s new baby. They are as at home here with us as anyone, an extension of our family. Mama and her new husband will be here, with Plum. Mama expects my cooking on Thanksgiving.  She knows her place at the table, she is due in just a few weeks and we don’t argue with pregnant women. We have come to love her choice of spouse, he has grown comfortable here as well. Next up will be my favorite guest, my mother-in-law, J.

J stands barely 5 feet and could run the country. She has no idea what strangers are, she is the most generous person I know and is completely lacking in a filter for her thoughts. She  creates energy, she creates joy, she can sometimes drain mine as well. She has never missed a family gathering, a child’s event, a surgery, an illness. She shows up. This may be our last holiday with her when she really knows how much we love her, dementia is setting in. I plan to make it her best. We have always cooked together, she is an excellent baker. Those skills are going but she will be present in my kitchen regardless. I need this time with her, I need more pictures.

With each successive Thanksgiving, we come together, we remember, we count blessings, we share joys. Chef and I are always here, serving, loving, celebrating our friends and family.  Whatever else the year has brought, we always come around to that Thursday in November when our table is full and our hearts are bursting. We will be saying grace and thanking God for all of our blessings, near and far, old and new. May your day bring lasting memories, great food and extra chairs for those who show up unexpected. Remember to take some pictures.