Thursday, May 3, 2012

Gratitude unbidden

This essay first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1997

Last night this old house heard a noise it hasn't heard in a long time; the soft wailing of an open soul.
I first heard it as I worked at the kitchen counter, grinding cranberries and oranges into my famous Thanksgiving relish. It stunned me with its sober sadness.

Distant and vague, at first I thought the noise came from my blender. But the frail humming persisted even when the blender was silent.

And so I put my apron aside and followed the sound toward the stairs. It was then I realized the odd noise was not a mechanical rumble at all. It was the cry of a heart, breaking open with emotion.
I rushed up the stairs and found my daughter in her bed. Her face was pressed into her pillow in a vain attempt to muffle the sound of her sincere tears.

I knelt by her bed. What ever was wrong, I asked. Did something happen? Did someone hurt you? Was she OK?  I stroked her hair, damp against her warm head.

She turned to me with swollen eyes and said, "Oh, Mommy, I'm so happy. When I came home tonight," she said, "and I was so cold after walking through the park, and the snow was so beautiful, and you were in the kitchen getting ready for dinner and the house smelled like pumpkin pie, something came over me. It was like all the good things all at once broke my heart."
She fell to her bed again and cried.

Baffled, I watched her struggle to regain words.

"But it's not only that," she said. "Not only the pumpkin pie. It's other stuff, too. It's the moon tonight. It's my friend, Catherine. It's the music from the play `Rent.' And it's math and choir and vanilla streamers at Hattie's."

Her eyes, puffy with joy, sparkled behind her tears.

"And there's more," she said. "I have a nice sister and my own room. My friends aren't afraid to hug each other and I love to go sledding at night."

She laughed through her tears as I folded her in my arms.

"I'm writing it all down," she said. "I never want to forget how I feel tonight. I'm writing down every bit of it. All of the things that make me happy."

I nodded my approval and patted her knee. I was so proud of her, I said. She was such a great kid. Sensitive, kind.

But, I glanced at my watch, there were cookies to be frosted, lefse to be rolled. I kissed her and returned to my work in my warm kitchen.

In moments I heard her sadness change to music. As I stood in the kitchen and mixed a batch of frosting, I heard my daughter's voice blend with the plaintive cries of Alanis Morisette. She was happy again.

Then it happened.

I'm not certain what I was doing at that instant. Maybe I was icing a cookie. Maybe I was stuffing a krum kakke with frosting or flattening a round of lefse.

All at once, I was kidnapped by memory. From my own kitchen, I was stolen to a place where my heart could be broken by a snowfall at sunset.

I held fast to the kitchen counter as memories assaulted me. I remembered the exhilaration of walking bare-headed and without mittens through the shock of a winter night's deadly freeze.

The startling splash of ice on a sled ride down Summit school hill. The tingling ache of frost-bitten toes and the deep, delicious itching as they warm to life by the fire.

The flannel pajamas my mother made every year; heavy cotton, cuddly as her generous caresses. The sight of my father, bent and stumbling over snowdrifts coming home from the bus stop after a long day of work.

I remembered November nights when my brother and I would lie with our bare feet against the fire gate, imagining characters in the fire as it crackled before us.

The kitchen swelled with ghosts of my odd, generous past and my heart filled with happy gratitude.
My bank account teeters on empty, and my marriage quivers with a frightening mid-life paralysis. I can't afford cable television and my kitchen ceiling is falling down.

But no matter. Once again, my home was wrapped in a warm blanket of gratitude:

". . . for the beauty of the Earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies."

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