“The past must have been safe because we survived.” — Susan Sontag
My cookbooks are bookended by a small metal recipe box of Mother’s, collected when she was first married. By the time I appeared, decades later and unplanned, she was middle aged and weary. Supper was frozen Swanson’s. It’s hard to imagine her at twenty-one, barely out of college, caring for the newborn who precipitated her wedding, hoarding meal ideas. Some jotted in her penmanship class cursive. Others clipped and saved. “Sweet potato in new roles. An important dish for holiday,” begins one, torn from a newspaper in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor.
Weren’t there more important things than sweet potatoes that Christmas? Serious, brutal, world-splintering things? Or did Christmas dinner feel very important in the narrowing realm of what Mother could control.
“What a lovely day,” I distinctly remember thinking, looking out from the commuter train at a vibrant sky over the Hudson on September 11th.
Mere hours later, as we collected him from school, my first-grade son asked, “What kind of a world have you brought me into?” An immense question. I was too caught up with his fiddly car booster seat buckle to respond. My English mother-in-law was visiting to meet our newborn daughter. We called to tell her the news. “Shall I start lunch?” she replied. She grew up in London during the blitz. Perhaps starting lunch is what one does when buildings explode.
My boss had a complicated relationship with empathy, so the next day, as if it was an ordinary Wednesday, I was back on the train. Dozens of National Guard were waiting, ramrod straight and watchful, in a deserted Grand Central. “This doesn’t feel like America!” I thought, rattled, afraid and naive. Soon “new normal” entered the lexicon. Soon, preoccupied by an important meeting or how much I hated my boss, I stopped noticing those soldiers.
“We might stock up on non-perishables,” my husband commented in March 2020. NPR said things could get bad. I bought shelf stable soup. It’s still unopened. My family didn’t need (or like) soup from a box, despite how essential it seemed that day in Safeway, watching jittery people pile carts to the brim.
Once again, pundits pontificate about the “new normal.” Work has changed forever! People (with secure jobs they can do “anywhere”) are fleeing San Francisco in droves! Will jobs return? What is not normal is over a half million dead. Police shooting black bodies is. I deliver foodbank groceries to folks in middle class neighborhoods. Were it an ordinary Wednesday, I never would have thought, “so this is what food insecurity looks like.”
Friends spend lockdown training puppies or rethinking life. One says her furniture company is booming. That’s great! I say, thinking of the saved jobs. But is anyone sick at their factories? Hopefully all the puppies get housetrained. My two-cent prediction is travel will rebound; everyone I know who hasn’t suffered badly is longing to get away.
I wonder how to reconcile suffering and abundance. Or guilt about my own good fortune.
I don’t have a tidy, solutions-colored bow to tie this up in. It’s Lent, so give me a pass. Take it as a glib hodgepodge of ways God doesn’t deliver definitives. Or how I could have assured my young son that the world is just the same, minus pesky delusions of invulnerability and permanence. Or how I can, sometimes, find breadcrumbs of joy and meaning, even while bristling at my Ash Wednesday, ordinary Wednesday, dustiness.
I hope Mother made important sweet potatoes at the start of a terrible war. My mother-in-law’s lunch was probably perfect in that awful moment. Last night, our dog looked me in the eye and peed on the sofa, so housetraining is a fail. I won’t reconcile suffering with abundance, except to plant tiny seeds with faith they might eventually, someday, flower. Even if I am no longer here.