Saying Goodbye Again: You are Like the Rain

Last weekend in DC I saw 2 shows by 2 iconic men. First, it was Paul Simon on his farewell, “Homeward Bound” tour, where he wowed me with his musicianship and imagination on a song called, “Rene and Georgette Magritte At Home with Their Dog After the War.” Backed up by yMusic, the song is full of mystery, delicate laughter, and Simon’s eloquent hand gestures that are themselves so beautiful as to seem surreal.
Two nights later, I was at the Birchmere to hear Nils Lofgren, whose wife, Amy, comped my tickets for his nearly sold-out show. Like Simon, being in the room with Lofgren’s music fills me with joy at his virtuosity, his musicianship, his own clear love of creating something as ephemeral as
music. Nothing compares to the joy of watching a grown man blissed out in the refracted joy of playing guitar with his three  brothers, all on stage, happily jamming to an audience full of family and old friends. It was a heaven.
Then Nils played Like Rain, something he’d written as a man-child, seventeen, my son’s age. I cried. The first anniversary of another beloved son’s fentanyl overdose approaches. My sadness is unspeakable. What to do? Can anyone lessen my anguish, or my family’s? If only we could
stand together and sing.

Embrace others if you can, even at work. Let them know you share their humanity. Perhaps your heart sings a similar song. Maybe you walk the same path. No human alive has has not experienced a deep loss.

Send a note. I have never been so lonely, or so relieved to hear from friends. Nils signed my guitar: Believe. I must. What else can a body do? Believe and love. The only way out is through.

TAGS: grief, loss, Paul Simon, Nils Lofgren, music, comfort, lovingkindness, loneliness, opioids, Fentanyl, comfort the grieving

Where the Games Begin: New Art and the Dying Coral Reefs

Begin the work week with a look at where imagination, creativity, and sheer hard work can take a person. My mother, Mary Hourihan Lynch (mhlynch.com), is an accomplished artist, with a studio at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA. Every so often, I spend a Sunday there, keeping the place open, talking to visitors, and hoping to make a sale. I meet many interesting people, from Mom’s artist friends to art lovers from the world over, to tourists taking in the Washington, DC, area.

Panoramic view, Coral Reef on display, Mary Hourihan Lynch, Torpedo Factory, 3d floor

Last Sunday’s delight was a young woman who admired this piece (see below)–Coral Reef--of a dead coral reef. A bleached coral reef can be a horror: my mother has made it into something beautiful by playing with form and material. Here, she manipulates with a mastery that I still find marvelous and extraordinary. 

If only she had a 100-foot wall in a public space–Got one? Below are a few images to pique your love of the beautiful and unusual…these are all canvas stretched over wood forms that my mother builds. What an imagination!  

TAGS: TORPEDO FACTORY, MARY HOURIHAN LYNCH, CANVAS SCULPTURE, CORAL REEFS, GREAT BARRIER REEF

 

 

Joining the Walking Gallery of Healthcare

I’m on my way to Cinderblocks, the 5th annual patient-led gathering of The Walking Gallery of Healthcare, founded by Regina Holliday. Regina truly wears more hats than I can even imagine, and yet whenever I’ve seen her photo, she’s upright and smiling and in motion. I’m eager to meet her today, as one of the newest members of the walking gallery.

I painted my jacket, which bears these words from Dante: I found myself alone in a dark wood. 

That has been my experience of life as a person with several chronic pain problems. I am trying still to see my way out, or at least to see the beauty in bare trees and green tops, or in whichever season I happen to be. I’ll be giving a short talk tomorrow about my experience with pain, opioids, and the so-called crisis, including how the CDC changed the way it counts the numbers and so told the wrong story about what is killing so many people in our communities and homes.

For the start of my talk, I decided to write a very, very short poem. See below, and hope to see you there.

When they said  I’d have to learn to live with it (just take some Bufferens)

Are you kidding me?

Disbelief

Helpless.

Anguish.

Isolation.

You must not know what you’re talking about.

Hysterical.

Lost.

Stressed.

Hopeless.

Shame.

Stigma.

I’ll just call Dr. Google.

Aggression.

Depression.

Determination.

Frustration

Aggravation.

Someone Make This Stop.

 

TAGS: Pain, burning mouth syndrome, The Walking Gallery, Regina Holliday, Cinderblocks5, Advocacy, Patient Advocate, Opioids, CDC, Centers for Disease Control, Heroin

On the Edge: Writing Haiku (5-7-5) to Save My Soul

Like most American school kids, I learned to write haiku (i.e., 5 syllables–7 syllables–5 syllables) in third or fourth grade. It is a Japanese poetic form that, other than World War II and the Cherry Blossom Festival, represented all that I knew of Japanese culture or literature until I reached college. Compared to English formal verse, such as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, haiku seem like child’s play.

To counter that, here are a few examples by Japanese masters of the form.

My life,
How much more of it remains?
The night is brief.
—–Masaoka Shiki

 

Don’t weep, insects–
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.
—–Kobayashi Issa

 

Scent of chrysanthemums…
And in Naru
All the ancient Buddhas.

—–Matsuo Basho

Basho, widely seen as the greatest among Japanese haiku masters.>

By the age of 9, I had quit haiku. By 12, I only wrote free verse. After attending one of Maryland’s earliest STEM high schools, I decided to escape what struck me then (and still does) as the drudgery of college English classes. I earned a mathematics degree: writing verse was not my problem. Calculus was. I still wrote poetry late at night, after crying rivers over algebraic forms, topology, and boys.

But about five years ago, a series of disastrous life events, including the onset of a chronic pain condition, led me back to haiku.

Living with chronic pain has meant struggling to control it before it controls me. For the first few years, I could no longer write for the love of language or story.  After spending long days writing for a consulting firm, by night, I was spent. Stress often meant that my pain was totally out of control. Since I’d failed to find relief in online yoga classes and guided meditation, haiku filled a space.

At first, I simply wrote notes on my iPhone. In fact, I still do, having composed one today during an acupuncture session:

Black lab yellow stars

my son watches from heaven

someone send him home

Eventually, I began writing haiku as affirmations of my own life: my strength, my power, my body, my beauty. And I liked the visual created when I superimposed my haiku on photographs that I took.  I had found an app called BeFunky that was easy to understand.

At first, I used handsome or striking or beautiful photographs of my own–because who sets out to shoot ugly?  When I ran out of images (never syllables, it seemed) I’d ask friends–and, in fact, some began sending me “haikuable” photos. Thus began my life as a haiku artist, creating wordworks that I call haikugram. Low risk, high gain. Here’s one of my first.

My mother, who sculpts in canvas, has a studio at The Torpedo Factory. She and several of her artist friends, who have spent years collaborating, brainstorming, and inspiring one another, have begun to face the central issues of aging: loss, grief, dying. Every so often, she’d send a friend one of my haikugram.

This is one breath, written for my son, Chad Jameson Schuster, who was 24 when he died on October 1, 2017. His life was a burst of energy and light.

In fact, the best haiku rely on close observations of nature, woven into the most elemental truths of human experience. They are a very short form of verse and are quite challenging to write. Haiku must cut, from the first line or image to the central line, which links two opposing thoughts or images, ideas and moments.

Today, however, the 5-7-5 rule is not so much in force unless one prefers it. As it happens, the Japanese count a phonetic sound called on  that approximates English syllabic counts, but not quite. Some English-speaking writers now define haiku as, “A short poem to be recited in one breath.”

(What does one do with a person like Michael Phelps, an Olympic swimmer whose one-breath could outlast the rest of us mere mortals by minutes, not seconds?)

Since writing my haikugram, I’ve found lots to celebrate, mostly an unusual chance to inspire others, and encourage them to write. A long-ago college friend who, like me, has a chronic pain condition, saw my haiku on a creativity website we both follow. He decided to try writing them, and asked me to coach him. Eventually, he added his to photos. Today, his haiku are far better than mine, and often brilliant in their marriage of human and natural experience.

Another friend, a fabulous fiction writer and editor of a large feature magazine, surprised me with news that he, too, is writing haiku. For years, he has been unable to write fiction, overtaken by his work as an editor and teacher. But haiku, which can be written in an hour, or nuzzled around all day in one’s brain, seem manageable. A challenge worth completing.

My most haiku-able moment came when I set out to teach haiku writing during a special event at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The program, Evenings at the Edge was a chance to celebrate the newly reopened gallery, one that had been my favorite since high school. The night I attended was to volunteer for a group called Split this Rock, a group that aims to get poets more involved in public life and policy, especially by working with the next generation of poets.

Chalkboard haiku, spur of the moment haiku in my kitchen

In addition to areas designated for spoken word poetry, music, and gallery gazing, a room was set aside for people to write haiku. Haiku were to be written on special cards and then posted on a wall. The rules were that haiku were to be anonymous and could not feature any political commentary. Tough to do in Washington, DC.

I had volunteered to coach others. Many visitors sat down with a sigh, perplexed at what they were to do. When I said, “Haiku, you know, 5-7-5,” their eyes would spark, and they’d say, “Oh, I did that in elementary school!”

Heads would bow and pens, crayons or color pencils would fly across the notecards.

At one point, a handsome young man sat down at the table across from me and, although he remembered the form, could not think of a thing to write. He attributed this to his being “tech minded” and “a computer guy.”

Lenten roses in my yard, 2-27-18, photo by Pat Sislen

“No excuse,” I teased. “I’ve got a math degree.”

He looked at my graying hair, I know, and smiled.

“Okay, then what I can write about?”

I asked him what he’d seen on his way to the event from his office.

“Snow, icy parking lots, icy roads, lots of traffic,” he said. “It was dark outside, and it was cold, cold, cold. I am ready for spring.”

“Spring,” he said, and looked at his haiku notecard, bowed his head, and began to write. A few moments later, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got something.”

My son, 16, joined me at On the Edge with Split this Rock

He read, “The brevity of life/A flower blossoms.”

It was a one-breath haiku and it was, I knew immediately, a marvel. And yet I knew if he flipped the two lines, it would be an even greater marvel of a haiku. I asked if he’d try flipping the lines and see how it sounded. So he did, reading it aloud once more.

We were silent.

My other lefty, 23, Split this Rock

He looked at me again and said, “I see what you did there. I see what you just did. You and me, we just wrote a haiku.”

“I didn’t write that, you did, I just suggested you reverse the order. That is an amazing haiku. You have to hang it on the wall,” I said. Perhaps I commanded.

“I can’t believe it, I wrote a poem. I did it. You got me to write a poem. I just wrote a haiku. Thank you! Thank you!” He jumped from his seat, joy emanating from him.

Image by Bo Mackison

I saw what I did there. Did you? I became more than myself by helping someone else become more. That sensation was astonishing, and it carried my spirit for a few weeks. After a long break in which I’ve felt incapable of writing anything at all, I am writing.

Here I am. Do you see what I just did? I am writing.

Please comment. Let me know that you are here, write a haiku. I’ll answer.

 

 

 

 

KEY WORDS: HAIKU, JAPANESE FORM, ON THE EDGE, SPLIT THIS ROCK, HAIKUGRAM, LIFELONG LEARNER, LIFELONG LEARNING, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, EAST WING, WASHINGTON, DC

Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.

Believe: The Healing Presence of a Compassionate Physician

Note on this: The process of getting to press in a magazine I revere, The Sun, is arduous, and my interview with my dear friend, Raymond Barfield, was more than a year in the making. Ultimately the introduction that I wrote led to lots of negotiations. So for those of you who might find the basis of our friendship of interest–and some insights on how Ray thinks about the world, and the role of music and language in his heart and practice, here is my unpublished introduction. I’d love for you to respond to it.

Ray Barfield and I first met in the resort town of Hammamet, Tunisia, where the World Health Organization had gathered people from around the world to talk about a new concept, “decent care,” and HIV/AIDS, and dying. It was January 2009, and Obama was about to be inaugurated. Whenever I walked through the souk in the resort, merchants would shout at me in different languages until I turned my head at the sound of English, and be cajoled in to some behind-the-counter drink of tea with mint and pine nuts and conversation about America. Other conference attendees would wave at me quizzically as they rushed to the next session.

I don’t remember talking with Ray during the five or six days of meetings. At meals, I wanted to sit with people who were from places I would likely never see: Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Uganda. Ray, an attractive curly-haired pediatric oncologist from Duke University, did not strike me as exotic. He was just another middle-aged American man, and I’d seen enough of those.

hammamet arch

During our daily meetings of endless discussions, Ray seemed brilliant in what he had to say about the dying of children, and the new mix he hoped to build at Duke, where he had just joined as a professor of medicine and divinity. He was great when it came to arguing about words, like subsidiarity, which most English-speakers did not know, and the others—from the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe–could not translate. It turned out that Ray is a philosopher, too with a Ph.D. earned after he completed medical school.

On the long trip home, I had a several-hour layover in the Charles deGaulle Airport. I was flying business-class, and the lounge was comfortable and bright. I spotted Ray, hunched over and writing something in long hand, and took a seat across from him.

He told me that he was working on his novel, which a major publisher had expressed interest in. I remember thinking I’d really had enough of doctors who, it seemed, were so brilliant that just being able to heal the sick was not enough for them. I was tired, and, honestly, just jealous. For the next few years, we kept up via Facebook.

But in early 2013, I developed what has proven to be an intractable neuropathic condition, one that was accompanied by a year of such stress and loss and sorrow, I thought that I would die. I didn’t know any pain experts, had trouble finding one who would see me—and then remembered that Ray, as a pediatric palliative care physician, would know about pain. I emailed him for help, and he responded with a copy of the very latest research, which detailed the benefits of combining opioids and anti-siezure medications. Back and forth we went by email, as I tried desperately to find kind of relief.

From those early emails, an enduring friendship has evolved. It turned out that, like me, Ray wrote poetry, too, and had a book out called, Life in the Blind Spot. We traded books, although styles were different, out love of language was not. Indeed, our intentions were always the same: to make something beautiful and enduring that matters.

When medication after medication did not help, Ray suggested that my best path to healing would be to spend more time looking for beauty, or to make it when I could not see it.

He told me about his approach to his own life, one that includes all the usual issues of being a husband and father and citizen—and the complex issues of caring for very sick and fragile children, of whom 100 will die each year. (The math on that number is bleak: that is two children each week, no matter what Ray and his brilliant colleagues offer.)

Ray said that he imagines his own life to have come with a bag full of golden coins., which he cannot see or count. Each day, he pulls out one coin, and considers how to spend it. Once it is spent, he says, it can never be reclaimed. And so, he urged me, spend that coin on something valuable.

Ray is at once miserly and generous with those coins. Most of his are spent in a hospital unit, managing bone marrow transplants, or pain in children with sickle cell disease, or playing his beloved guitar for a child in the ICU, or listening to desperate and grief-stricken parents.

Other days, rare ones, the coins go to his guitar playing or his writing. His first novel, The Book of Colors, came out in 2015. Written in the voice of a 19-year old biracial pregnant young woman whose mother has died in a crack house, Ray tells the story of Yslea as she makes her way to beauty.

When he is challenged at the seeming hubris of this—a middle-aged white professor from Duke talking in the voice of a young black woman—he bristles.

“Is there not room for imagination?” he asks. “Can I only tell stories through my own experience? Tell that to Faulkner.” Novelists must take the voices that come to them, Ray says.

I have spent some time at his home in Carrboro, where he is up at five each morning to build a fire near the desk where he will write for a few hours in longhand on plain sheet moleskin notebooks. Once his day begins at Duke, there will no time to write or dream.

The living room has no spare wall space—shelves of books collected over the course of a long marriage fill every wall from ceiling to floor. A stone fireplace is the room’s central focus, and the set-up reminds me of a church or an altar. The room is a peaceful place to be, and I am lucky to count myself welcome there (so long as I stay quiet while Ray lets the muse loose).

Our Sun interview began last October, on a crazy-fast car ride through the streets of Carrboro, where a fall festival was underway. Ray was racing to the home of luthier Wes Lambe to drop off his three guitars, which needed work if they were to sound the way Ray wanted them to.

As the two spoke, I had a glimpse of the artisan within the physician. Ray is deeply attached to his guitars, which, he says, have played a key role in almost every important moment of his life. Most recently, he has taught himself to play like the Australian guitar master, Tommy Emmanuel, a vibrant, layered, percussive sound which Emmanuel calls, “a harmonic cascade.

“Don’t fuck up,” Ray tells Wes as he snaps the last guitar case shut. Leaving those guitars, I sense, is a painful act of faith. If a tool slips, the luthier can easily compromise or destroy an instrument.

It is what the parents who leave their children in Ray’s care must do, too. And so too, the children who are old enough (that is, not infants) to understand what is happening to them. Patients give Ray their bodies, that they might be healed. One wrong move, and they are gone. So Ray works carefully with them, often at the very edges of what might heal.

People often think of doctors as mechanics, or compare health care to an autobody shop. It is far from that. The care of the sick and the dying is an act of the spirit, a glimpse of the holy. Ray knows that he is an artist—and he knows that healing is not always equivalent to curing.

For two days last fall, Ray and I hung out and talked. He can be funny—and he can be cruel. He can be full of beauty, and sometimes, every so often, a bit of grace, too.

This summer, we got together on a mission involving one of Ray’s guitars. He wanted Nils Lofgren, a rock-and-roll hall of fame musician, to sign the guitar. Arlo Guthrie had, Ray said, so why not Nils? Because Nils follows me on Twitter, Ray and I figured there was a chance.

After Lofgren’s show in Annapolis last spring, Ray and I stood in a long line, he with his guitar, and everyone else with their CDs and albums and t-shirts. Nils looked puzzled when Ray set his guitar on the table, but he smiled. I told him that this moment would bring Ray such joy.

IMG_8028

Nils wrote, “Believe,”* and so Ray does, or tries, even when life makes that hard. Ray believes in heaven, but more often than not, it is of this earth.

 

key words: life of a pediatric oncologist, chasing spirituality, finding meaning, care for dying children, Duke School of Divinity, Duke School of Medicine, Dr. Raymond Barfield

How to Cope with the Cycle, Not Stages, of Grief

I was invited to write about grief for a popular website, so I have been thinking about it, and what I might write. So many have written and sung and drawn their experiences of grief and loss. What could I add to that canon?

I found myself thinking of something my friend Reuben mentioned so many years ago after his dad died–that the sight of a dapper older man walking down the street with a hat tipped a certain way could start his  grief all over again.

For me today, it is this blizzard. In February 1994, I was a single mom of three under the age of 5. My granny, who had bought the house next door to mine so that she could stay near to help with Conor, my first baby, had fallen and broken a hip.

That summer, my uncle had built a back step to the deck off my kitchen–low rise, long run– so that she could come straight across the yard and in the backdoor, bypassing the steep stairs out front.

When she came home to recuperate from the broken hip, my job was to get over in the morning, to check on her and get her set up for the day.  Alyson, my youngest daughter, was a month old, so I would strap her in a Snugglie under my maternity coat, and bundle up Conor and Meredith, ages 4 and 2, in snow clothes.

Someone would inevitably need to go potty the minute I had them all dressed. But eventually, we would tromp across the ice and snow to my Grandmother’s house. I would pray not to fall with the baby strapped on.

The deep snow today reminds me of that winter, and a year in which I lost my marriage and my grandmother. I was  thinking about how much I still miss her, and also how I did not know to appreciate her more. I expected her to live forever, even though I was old enough to know better.

When Conor was a newborn, I would get  irritated with my two grandmothers–who only ever loved and helped me–because they had so much advice for me about what to do with that colicky baby.

They wanted to hold him all the time, take him from me and urge me to rest, or shower, or work on a freelance job. My Grandmom Hourihan (Graom) would arrive every weekday morning around 8 to take him to the living room so that I could get some sleep. My Grandmom Lynch (Meme) would come every Tuesday and sit in a chair with me and sing The Tennessee Waltz.

Before our move to the exurbs, my mother, Mary, and my great aunt, Anna, who both worked nearby, would come by for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I was lucky to be surrounded by their decades of experience, but too foolish to know it.

Now that I am a grandmother, too, I know it. I understand what my grannies were about, beyond helping me with adjust to motherhood.

Holding a baby is a brief touch on the future; the old know that our time for holding babies is limited, and that we will become invisible before we become nothing. I know that my times of holding babies is long gone, save the few times a week that my grandbaby allows me to carry her.

An artist friend died earlier this month–alone and unexpectedly at the age of 73. Luckily he was a writer, so I am able to hear his voice through his blog, Waterfall Road. A friend of his posted this from TJ’s blog, 2014:

I don’t believe this is the path of my enlightenment in one lifetime. I see it a cycle through this lifetime in self-awareness, saying in signs I’ve done well not to get side-tracked, passing through opportunities for distraction, indulging some and letting them go, returning to the flow, allowing the flow, trusting the flow that just keeps rolling along. 

More than ever, I feel myself in that flow, as TJ said. It will just keep flowing along, always forward, never back. How I wish I could flow back to 1994–not the bad times–so my grannies could once again give me their accumulated love and wisdom and heart. I would make a pot of coffee with plenty of cream, and we would admire my beautiful babies.

“Doll,” my Grandmom Hourihan would say, as I fretted over some milestone or misbehavior or worry, “Slow down. It’s over before you know it.”

Or as Iman posted  on Instagram about  David Bowie  dying, “sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

 

Keywords: grieving process, grieving loss of relationship, grieving for celebrities, grieving process for friends

Waterfall Road: How I Missed It

For a few years now, I have enjoyed the friendship and encouragement of an artist/writer/dreamer, TJ Worthington, who lived on Waterfall Road in a place called Sparta. We met through Your Daily Creative Practice, a Facebook group founded and managed by visionary artist, Ruth Schowalter of Georgia. I enjoyed TJ’s blog, Waterfall Road, and his observations about life in the mountains of North Carolina, and the people and creatures he encountered there.

In my mind, one day, I was going to Carolina to meet him. But on January 4, 2016, TJ died unexpectedly, at home at least, and not in some ICU or ambulance. This poem is a dream of how our meeting might have gone. Perhaps one day, in the stars, it still will.

I often enjoyed his blogs, but his last one, posted Jan. 4, 2016, struck at my heart so.

So does one on the topic of regret, something I am trying to release from my own heart.

Though he lived in the rural mountains, his heart lived in the world. Here is one of his last works of art, called “34” which he posted with lines from the Tao-te-ching:

 

34

I will be there in Sparta on Jan. 23, to read a poem for TJ and to meet his many friends and hear their stories. And who knows, maybe we’ll dance, or play a tune, or sit in the quiet of the woods, and listen.

 

TJ Worthingon, death, memorial, art

The Taste of Christmas Past

For years now, I have harbored my great-grandmother’s cookbooks and order pads that date from the 30s and 40s, when she was a cook at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. I have a half-baked notion that one day I might cook the many recipes and so have a taste of American foods, circa early 20th-century.

 

cookbooks
I also have copies of correspondence between her and her three sons at the start of World War II, as they made cross-country journeys, and wrote to her of the thrill of Hollywood, the tedium of North Carolina. As the war progressed, the long lists of what she ordered to feed the students in her house grew shorter and shorter; the menus, which had been fairly lavish in 1940 or so, become quite stark by 1944. While my uncles’ letters are usually light and full of a sense of adventure, they are tempered by letter in which she writes of her sorrow when her eldest son, shot down and killed in a mission over France.

I have long wanted to write a book that blends these artifacts, and tells the story of one Irish immigrant family as it began to make its way through and into America.Instead I keep it all squirreled away, too engaged in making a living and raising a family to devote my imagination to such an endeavor.

This Christmas, though, my first as a grandmother, I’ve been thinking about my own grandmother and her mother, and the smells of my childhood, in the kitchen of the house where my grandmother sometimes lived with us, when she was not traveling the world.

She enjoyed a long career as a research scientist in Beltsville, a retirement to Australia, and globetrotting for many years. Between times, she sometimes lived with us. She had an extensive circle of women friends, people with whom she had worked or gone to church or played poker.

Every year, as Christmas neared, she would being her preparations for the epic task of making miniature fruitcakes as gifts for these friends. The process would begin with a stench – there is no other word for it – of boiling blackstrap molasses, a process which, in my memory, lasted for days. At the same time, she would set up shop at the kitchen table, where she would chop candied fruit into almost microscopic bits and pieces. Days of baking would then ensue, with hundreds of tiny fruitcakes arrayed in cookie tins that she would fill and stash in her room. She would mail some packages to her friends around the world, and deliver others in person as the holiday neared.

Her friends all had similar ideas, each with her own specialty, and my grandmother would often come home with baked delights—pfefferneuse, bird’s nests, sugar cookies and gingerbread. I remember feeling vaguely embarrassed for my grandmother, who had returned such gustatory delights with something as awful-smelling as fruitcake. Surely, it was one hot mess.

I have yet to try fruitcake –memories of the awful smell of boiling molasses has kept me from it. I felt vindicated in my ick-factor years later when I learned that fruitcakes originated in Ancient Egypt, where they were buried with the dead. Where they belong, I think. (In fact, my parents tell me that the smell that bothered me was the rum, and that everyone loved the 99 proof fruitcakes.)

This year, as a new grandmother, I thought I might try whipping up some treats from my great grandmothers’ recipe book. I had hoped that the fruitcake recipe would be there among the book’s crumbling treasures. Instead I have read how to make Northampton pudding and date and nut torte, and marveled at confections that require 10 pounds of sugar of 4 pounds of butter or 40 egg whites. My sweet tooth drools.

The back of the book includes a page of tips about working in the kitchen, and includes handy ideas, such as using milk to rinse eggs from a bowl, and never using two spoons when one would do. I am taken by my great-grandmother’s spidery handwriting, and the many names listed beside so many recipes I like the smell of the worn pages, the food stains, the simplicity of it.

My own heirloom recipe is one my mother clipped from the Washington Post years ago, for thimble cookies. During the inflationary 70s, we used margarine for everything – but the thimble cookies were so special, we actually used real butter. I was allowed to use my great-grandmother’s thimble to press holes in each cookie, which I filled with raspberry jam. I still do. If my grandmother was around when I made these, she would chide me to be sure to scrape every iota of butter from the wrappers.

I still do. And the cookies are as tasty as ever, more so because they are a rare treat. A batch of 40 usually lasts an afternoon.

I have an image of myself, with the ghosts of my grandmother and her mother looking down and over my reading glasses, as I measure out ingredients. I wonder what my granddaughter will like—and what will cause her to shrivel up her nose and turn to something more tasteful.

key words: Christmas, grandmother, fruitcake, thimble cookies, Massachusetts, Smith College, World War II, cookbooks, recipes