Family Sausage Dressing

I rarely use a recipe. I cook by the memories of my ancestors. I know what a dish is supposed to taste like, and I know how to get there.

The stock. Last in, but first made. The fat, gelatin, skin, and bones of a take-home chicken from some too-tired-to-cook work night, thrown into the slow cooker with two bay leaves, a few onions, carrots, celery, salt, pepper, sage, and rosemary. White wine if there’s the bottom of a bottle hanging around. Some vinegar to pull the goodness from the bones. The acids lay down some dimension, and their forward taste takes a seat in the back of the room when everything’s said and done. Let that go for hours. When it’s time, pull out the solids with a colander, then freeze that gold until it’s called for. That’s how Mimi and Pipi would do it, too. Handy, since I make a Thanksgiving dressing with their ghosts as well.

Dressing is about diversity and abundance. Three loaves of bread. Sourdough. Darkest pumpernickel rye you can find. And a hearty loaf of wheat; extra seedy is good. Tear them all to bits the size milk bottle tops. Fill all your mixing bowls past what they can hold. Let the late autumn air suck the moisture out of them; or dry them out in the oven if you’re ready before they are. You don’t have to make croutons out of them, we’re just getting them thirsty for what’s to come.

In the biggest cast iron pan in the place, the one that handles Sunday mornings, drip a little oil in the bottom. When it’s warm enough to move like water, put in two pounds of Italian sausage. Bird sausage replaces pork sausage nearly unnoticeably. When it’s nearly browned all the way through, add those seven or so small onions chopped with the Red Pig knife from the  grandmother on another side of the family. It’s alright that they pile above the top of the pan. They’ll cook down. When they do, pile on the chopped celery. Two full hearts.

In another pan, melt a whole block of Irish butter. Mimi never did get to Ireland. I wish she had, but dying with a few unfulfilled dreams means having never lost the ability to dream. Two full heads of garlic, chopped coarse for slow continuous release. Rubbed Sage. Rosemary. So much it seems indecent. Life is about flavor. Pour the herbed butter over the meat, onions and celery. Let it simmer a bit. Wash a few dishes.

In the big pot used for canning, the only thing in the place—aside from the bathtub—that will hold the whole thing with room to stir, dump in the bread. Pour everything from the cast iron pan in. Stir with gusto enough to dredge the good stuff up from the bottom of the pot and the generations. When it’s good and mixed, with so many shades of white, brown, and gray, without accumulations of any one thing in any single place, take stock, and add the cohesion. Stir more, getting the stock into every morsel, relaxing it, giving it some semblance of oneness.

In big heaping scoops, transfer it into a huge aluminum roasting pan. Cover it in foil. Tomorrow, it’ll taste like West River Street in Deerfield Michigan.

¡Salud!

A sneeze is inherently comical;
Nature’s practical joke.

Grandpa Matthias, my tri-sneeze ancestor.

I, like my
Grandfather before me
always sneeze in threes.

Loud, full-bodied things.
Sometimes my feet leave the ground.

Once, while in service to a beloved nun,
I sneezed only twice, held up my index finger and said
Let’s see if I’ve got anything for the Holy Spirit!
Her laugh fills my memories still.

A dear atheist friend would have nothing to do
With superstition or tradition only for tradition sake.
I’d issue the bless you response following the call of her sneeze—
A historic prayer for skipped heartbeats and the near-death sneeze experience—
She would not abide with a customary thank you, and met such nonsense with silence.
We renegotiated a more fitting ceremony.
She sneezes.
I reply, don’t die.
Everyone has a happy time of it.

Comfort Food

A day can go sideways.
Been on the task for a while,
And nothing is moving right,
The parts aren’t coming together right
And maybe today is just a day
In a long succession of days.

Though it doesn’t make everything better,
A sandwich
turkey, provolone, and guacamole
that she made—
despite not caring much for sandwiches—
eaten, wearing the day’s dust,
with only clean hands

the world gets bumped
a little more plumb.

I Love You In Markers

There are a number of objects that have traveled with me most of my life. I still have Tim & Tam, my two stuffed bunnies; my yellow baby blanket that I used to nicker on—a made up word for rubbing the silky edge against the nape above my lips—and the rainbow afghan that my maternal grandmother—my mimi—made for me. She’d made one for each of her eleven children, and one for each of the many grandchildren she had. There are a few others, as well, from times more near, and of other eras of my life between then and now. The meditation bell given to me by Sister Renee Richie, who had the same exact religious name as her brother, who was also a religious brother in another order. The kayak paddle that I commissioned, made of black walnut, made only with hand tools, by an anthropology teacher who considers his alter ego to be Captain Jack Sparrow. A petoskey stone that Dave gave me from one of his adventures, same as he has relics of my adventures. A leather hacky sack, given to me by a friend. It was her father’s. She gave it to me after his funeral.

Upon a wall in every home I’ve ever had, has been a picture. The frame—the newest element—was a gift from a lover who knew how to preserve what is important to me better than I did. I hadn’t notice the picture disappear, but when it reemerged one Christmas morning, the familiar image was majestically encased in a dark hardwood frame, nice glass, and brown paper on the back. It’s one of the most loving gifts I’ve ever received.

Behind the glass, is an eighteen by twenty-six, hand-colored-with-markers, Doodle Art poster, like an enormous page out of an elaborately detailed coloring book. The image framed by a web of jungle bamboo, are tropical trees and mandalas of flora with lions, snakes, monkeys, chimps, gazelles,ostriches, butterflies, toucans, and tigers.

My father must have burned through a ton of packs of markers working on it. After the divorce. I don’t know which state he lived in then. Maybe it was Florida. Perhaps California. But at some desk or at some table in a kitchen I’ve never been in, he put in a hell of a lot of time to send a labor of love to me, his son, who grew up out of his view.

For the One Who Calls me Uncle

To be a feminist man
Is an aspiration
That must be taken up and proven
Like the back end of “Hey Jude”
at peak energy,
and seemingly endless.

Which is more
Than fair
Considering
The seemingly endless
Tilt of the board
Where every woman and girl
Falls sway to a world
Where they, instead of a wristwatch,
Are considered an accessory.

So when a well-meaning relative
Describes the girl
Who will be a woman
As “not very ladylike”
I take that sad song, and make it better:
This one is not going to be a lady;
She, is on her way—

As a force of nature.

Balance and a Better Direction

Justice is about bringing things into balance, and pointing them in a better direction.

I first felt the tear of justice before I could speak or think in words. There was an imbalance in the one with the beard. That made an imbalance between him and the one who was soft. That made an imbalance in her. And when the chaos between them erupted for long enough, the one with the beard and the one who was soft ended in divorce. And with few words but overwhelming emotions, I, as a toddler, struggled to decide to whom—the soft one, or the one with the beard—would get which portion of love, which I clearly had a limited supply of.

Justice as judge.

***

My Aunt Aimee was a teenager when I was born. My Mimi and Pipi’s old yellow house burned down when I was a baby. I never knew the house my mother grew up in. Just the ranch that they built in its place. It was a house that only needed three bedrooms since nine of the kids were out on their own. Just Martha, the youngest still lived at home. Aimee lived away at school. However, even though they didn’t have most of the kids at home anymore, most of them lived nearby with their families, and there were lots of big meals to eat together, so the basement was big enough for a kitchen with two ovens, a rack of mason jars of put up foods, a woodshop, a bar, a fireplace, a bathroom and enough picnic tables for everyone to sit at close to the same time. That basement was big enough that I rode my bike around, and not just in a constant circle. In fact I was learning to ride my bike when it was just Aimee and me in that basement. It was the day that I stopped the bike in place and said to her “you’re retarded.”

“Shut up.” She said. “That’s not a nice word.” and she made a sound of vocal cords constricted that came from her nose while saliva gather at the corners of her mouth, with her tongue making a clicking sound that she made when she got upset.

Her pain was apparent and large. Inside, I collapsed, and my stomach reviled in the disgust I had for myself.

Justice as empathy teacher.

***

My friend Brian is an exceptionally bright and gifted guy, and exceedingly goofy. There’s no one I’ve eaten more macaroni and cheese with. Not a contender on the horizon. He was one of the brightest theatrical lights to shine from our hometown, and of course he moved to New York trying to be a star. He did some things, but later the dream got more tailored to his actual life. I was going to NYC a lot back then for work, and nearly every time, I’d see Brian. A few times I’d stayed with him too. If you know anything about NYC apartments, you know how generous that is. Rent was cheaper—if you want to call it that—out in Astoria. Just twenty minutes ride into Manhattan, still the city, but more organic. Going in and out of his building there was an old Ukrainian man who would sit in a broken lawn chair. He lived downstairs from Brian. He had a golfball-sized lump on his chest where his pacemaker was which I’d just assumed was a tumor.  You could see since he just wore an undershirt, or on the hottest New York days, no shirt at all.

“Hey Mr. Thomas.” Brian would say.

“Thanks again for the ice. Thanks for the ice!” Mr. Thomas said profusely. It’s not hard to be a saint. Sometimes you just need to share the benefits of owning ice cube trays.

Justice as neighbor.

Jogging the Gym

Every Phys Ed. class in high school began with jogging around the outer edge of the lines painted on the hardwood floor, under what must have been fifteen layers of varnish. Gym class was where all of our hormones were laid bare. From showers, to the smell of teenagers learning to manage their smells, to acne, to the unmistakable awareness of our incoherent sexualities and all of the posturing and evasion that goes along with them.

While running laps around the gym one morning, my best friend—then, and still—said to me matter-of-factly “Well, last night I asked my dad to teach me to shave.” I have no idea what my response in the conversation was, but I remember both admiration and envy.

My father had died at the beginning of my freshman year, though in truth, his life was largely lived far away from me, and there was little he would’ve been able to do to help usher me through the perils of puberty. My stepfather was a difficult man to approach with any request. He was quick to shut down anything that wasn’t rock solid, and he’d surely have pointed out the fact that I really didn’t have a hair on my face that would warrant learning to shave…that is, if I’d have asked him.

Instead, I gazed in the mirror with his shaving cream on my face, and one of his disposable razors in hand, and started moving the blade across my face just as my best friend had described his lesson from his father.

I have now grown well into my adult body as I look toward age 40. Now I shave with either a straight razor or a double-sided brass safety razor, and the occasional disposable.

It occurs to me that we as a people continue to borrow words from the past that lose connection with their original source. We often speak of “honing our skills,” but to hone is to run a razor over a stone at just the right angle, with just the right pressure to leave an edge that can either make you bleed or can give you a sense of a clean, fresh start, and a sense of manhood. The hone in my life wasn’t either of two men who bore a version of the title “father” in my life. It was then, and is still—Dave.

Two clean shaven young men on a first day of school.
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