Saturday, April 10, 2010

If You Need Anything

There is an old joke in my family. When you went to the family farm in Missouri, the grandparents would set you up in a bedroom and then send you up to bed. On your way up the stairs one of them would call after you and say, "If you need anything, you let me know what it is and I'll tell you how to get along without it."
This line still cracks us all up. Sharing in the joy of that house is one of the great privileges of my life. I am the last of my generation, more than twenty years distant from the first and while a few followed after me in subsequent years, we are growing ever fewer in number.
My grandparents retired on 90 acres in southwest Missouri to a house which was mostly kitchen. There was a living room with a piano and an organ, there were two recliners in front of the TV in the "TV room" and there was a screened-in porch the size of a small house through which you just passed on your way to somewhere else. Upstairs, there were bedrooms, but they weren't like other bedrooms. They were rooms full of beds. Full as in "you'll have to walk over this bed to get to that one" and "don't let your leg get stuck between the bed frames." My sister and I always shared this one double bed that had a big depression in the middle so that no matter how tightly we clung to the sides with white knuckles, our behinds slid together in sleep and we woke with a start and a whisper of revulsion to grab on to the side and pull away again. I don't know how many hours of our lives were spent wondering which great aunt's or uncle's butt made the abyss in that mattress.
But the heart of the place, the room you were passing through to and the location the dog would drag you to with his gentle teeth on your arm: that was the kitchen.         
It was about as large as my living room now. It was white, in theory, though every cabinet door was painted a different bright earthy tone and every door handle was a funny black pounded metal thing. The counter crept all the way around the room from the stove about five feet to the sink under the window and then miles over to the loudest fridge in America. And all along the way there were things. Some of them were things a good suburban girl knew – like a mixer or a can opener. But then there were canning supplies, which looked horribly medical to me. And there were cans of things my cousin Craig convinced me were parts of calf fetuses. They turned out to be pickeled peaches, I think. Anyway, we ate them. One of the best things about that kitchen was the window over the sink. Grandmother had bird feeders outside her kitchen window and when squirrels or crows would come to her feeder, she'd squirt them with her dish rinser. Also grandchildren making too much noise in the yard on Sunday.
But the best part of that kitchen was behind her, under the stairs and frequently stretching out to hold eighteen people. It was the kitchen table. It was the only eating table in the house, there was no dining room. It was a plain wooden table with plain wooden chairs and behind it on the wall was a huge mirror. It was placed there so that Grandma Craig could lean crookedly against the counter with her ankles crossed and drink coffee and see the faces of the people she loved, both those facing her and those facing away. And so that we could see her. Granddad sat at the head and some hapless grandchildren stretched down the table, but Grandma Craig rarely sat for more than a few minutes. Grace, maybe, and "Pass the…" but then she was up and standing at the counter, visible and participating from the altar of our bounty. She was coltish, even in her eighties, with long legs that had a poetic stride and a strong jaw, a quick and gorgeous smile and eyes behind glasses that cried and smiled of their own volition, as if the rest of her face were in the present but her eyes were reliving the past.

Vegetables were not an option in that house, they were a prerequisite. It went without saying that the half acre vegetable garden did the lion's share of provision for guests of the farm, even in fat years. I ate more of everything my kids can't identify than I care to recall. It is all the rage now to hide nutrition from children. There are books and articles and websites about sneaking vegetables and fruits into recalcitrant eaters. I myself give my son a chocolate milkshake in lieu of a meal every day because he only eats things that start with “p” and have been processed at least four times before reaching his face. But in that house, vegetables were not a secret, they were a sacrament.

"Look at that corn," Granddad would say as he passed a huge tray with two dozen ears on it. "Sweet as candy," was the refrain. And you know what? It was. Then he'd pass all the empty cobs to someone's plate and say, "Shayshine, did you eat all that corn! My goodness you're gonna grow big!"

"Those peaches turned out nice," he might say. Or, "Jeanette, did you and Linda eat all those big ripe strawberries and just leave us these little ones? We're gonna need some ice cream to make them worthwhile."

But the main event was tomatoes. Tomatoes in that house were holy ground. They were grown with zen-like care. They were coddled and comforted, they were cultured and cared for, they were prayed over and policed. And they were manna from the wilderness. You could cut them up and put them in a sandwich. You could slice them into a salad. It was theoretically possible to boil, peel and put them in a sauce. But what God intended was for you to eat them here and now.
  Like an apple. With salt. Amen.

See, in that house, you could feel God like a presence in the room. He was there on the stairs. He played the organ and read aloud at night. On that particular property He may have smoked a pipe but I know for sure that He sat on the patio with the elders, walked in long, disjointed strides with Grandma Craig out to the Thinkin' Rock. He turned the handle of the ice cream churn like the rest of us. And He was sitting at that table as sure as ever I was. Every grace in that house, no matter how silly it seemed, started out addressing Him, never in a loud voice, He was inches, not miles away, and never without humor or love. He wasn't frightening, He was neighborly, He wasn't theoretical, He was family. And every single time I can ever remember His being addressed in that house – every one – the prayer started with Thank You. They were grateful, they were blessed and they knew it. No morsel of food, no member of the family, no moment in time passed without thanking God. I was always surprised when it ended and we all said Amen, because you half expected a voice nearby to say, "You're welcome."

Now, when it got dark and all the fireflies had been chased and screamed at and Granddad and my father had walked out to the barn and back, leaving a fragrant trail of pipe smoke, then it must be time for bed. There was the parade through the one tiny and inconvenient bathroom. There was the begging for one more morsel before bed, and there was sometimes the quiet, sighing sound of the organ or piano. Then, the little ones were sent up to clamber into their various sleeping arrangements and fall asleep in the terrifyingly absolute darkness. But before you went up to sleep, one or the other of the Grand's would call up after you, "You let me know if you need anything, and I'll tell you how to get along without it."

Maybe this was depression era wit or wisdom, there was certainly much learned in our family from that time, but for me, born thirty years and a hundred lifetimes from the Dust Bowl, there was another message entirely.

I don't know, I can't know, what my Grandparents prayed for. But I know how they taught me to pray. They never seemed to ask for anything to change. They never prayed for release from strife, they never prayed for mercy, they never prayed for a change in the world because God made the world and He knew what He was doing.

No, they prayed for Him to "show them how to get along" in the world. They prayed for Him to show them, to teach them, to touch them in a way that would make them fit for the world He created. If it seemed too hard to them, they never asked Him to make it softer, they asked Him to make them stronger. If it seemed dark, they asked not for light but for vision. If they felt broken or sad or lost, they asked Him to hold them in His hand. If they needed something, they let Him know and He showed them how to get along without it. 

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