That’s Nothing

We made the cake the night before.

1am driving home from bonfire conversations under the stars, my phone buzzes in my lap.

Where are you? Tam asks, hinting at the hours I know she’s already spent cleaning the house, amidst putting the three little sisters to bed.

On my way, I tell her. What do we need to do? 

And then we’re standing in the kitchen with the lights on low, casting short yellow shadows over the neat piles, the wiped counter. The day’s long hours etched on his face, he leans against the dishwasher while I mix cookie batter, eggs.

He pours the milk while I stir. Tam cleans the office while, down the hall, the rest of the family sleeps.

The clock ticking towards 2am, I unload the dishwasher while Tam sweeps. The scent of vanilla cake wafting from the oven mingles with the bonfire smoke still in my hair, and his sweater, and the dish-soap steam rising from the dishwasher.

Slowly, as if already in a dream, we finish the tasks, say goodnight, close doors on a long, working, waiting Saturday.

The next day, we’ve more than an hour between arriving home from church and the first buzz of the front door.

We’re three in the kitchen then; Tam and I and El Papa, too, rotating around one another, taking a turn at the sink, at the stove, at the fridge.

In the front room, three little girls step barefoot across the freshly-vacuumed carpet. The two youngest have arranged their egg hunt candy in piles, sorting foil-wrapped chocolate and off-brand jelly beans into rows and aisles.

The potatoes I made yesterday, two hours of peeling, cooking, layering, sit covered in the basement fridge. The cake is there, too; both spuds and dessert tucked into shelves already heavy-laden with a building’s worth of surplus food, drinks, groceries.

The kitchen counter empties, briefly. Papers, trinkets, plastic cups from the play kitchen filled with hair ties and assorted coins are swept off the speckled surface, leaving it unfamiliarly bare. Then, slowly, the space fills once more.

On one end, stacks of plates. Butter dishes. Salad bowl. On the other end, vases hold nearly every fork I can conjure from the cabinets, a napkin-lined basket awaits the rolls, who in turn await their time in the oven.

I swirl between kitchen and hall, move in quick, light steps through dining room, living room. Grab a dish, meet a guest. Check my phone, tidy a corner. The buzzer rings once, then again and again as the clock ticks towards 2pm, and with every buzz, the hum of conversation, of memory and story, of did you hear and do you remember grows yet stronger.

The bacon-wrapped dates, a dish we’ve anticipated since the morning, arrive, tucked safely under an arm and an umbrella. The press in the kitchen is tight then; our tummy-sucking, arms up, slide sideways rotating around one another grinding to a halt in the wake of the delectable appetizer.

It takes five minutes for each date, encased in crispy, dripping bacon, to be pried from the pan, set out on the largest serving tray that Tam can find. Five minutes and nearly 20 of them have been consumed, even before the tray leaves the kitchen.

There’s a list on the fridge. Dry erase-written sum of the dishes to be served. I’m standing there in front of the fridge, erasing things accomplished, when Tam leans over to check the ham, one hand pulling the oven door open, the other reaching into its heated center, meat thermometer extended.

Amidst the sound and the movement, there’s a moment’s pause. I watch her brow furrow, follow her eyes as they dart to the oven dial, then meet her wide eyed gaze as she darts to turn the dial, cranking it higher. The list and the ingredients, the cheese tray and the hummus bowl; it’s all there, it’s all served and ready, and we’re here in the packed kitchen with a ham that’s not been cooking properly.

What’s wrong? Someone asks, stopping short on her way through the kitchen, her eyes catching our own in that one, anxious instant. Nothing, we laugh, smirking at each other as she steps over the threshold, down the hallway.

And really, it is nothing. More than twenty guests, sitting in huddles throughout the living room, leaning into the conversation, heads and shoulders thrown back to laugh: that’s something. A kitchen counter laden with food, and standing against the counter, watching athletes and grad students heap their plates, returning once, twice for another plate: that’s something. Standing around the dining table, swapping corny jokes and puns long after the meal has been finished: that’s something. Collecting dishes, arranging and rearranging stacks to be washed with the helpful hands of a kind cleanup volunteer: that’s something. Sitting together, a family of seven so rarely in one place at one time, on the couch after all have left, clinging to the moments of wholeness: that’s something.

But a ham that needed another 30 minutes in the oven? That’s nothing.




{In this space let’s put

poetic words for cousins

who stay forever}


First Dance 

Saturday’s first dance 

Song: God Bless the Broken Road 

And aren’t all roads? 


Tornado Just Fine

I warned my kids today, nineteen nonchalant 4th graders, that there was the possibility of a tornado warning during school today.

It won’t happen, at least not during school, I told them from the front. But I want you to be prepared, just in case.

And of course, it didn’t happen, at least not during school. We stood in the outdoor pick-up line in the spitting rain, laughing as we huddled under two near-superfluous umbrellas.

And then, thirty minutes later, I drove home with the window down, the sun shining hot on my knees. Sunglasses misplaced somewhere in my backpack, I swiped my arm randomly around in the backseat at every stoplight, hoping somehow to locate my bug-eyed shades. But no such luck.

Tonight though, we’re four in the house, three adults and the tiniest of three-year-olds, when the sirens begin to go off. I’m already in the basement, working on organizing the room I’ll soon leave, when the others appear at the top of the stairs; the professor clutching the towel-clad preschooler he’s just pulled from the bathtub.

And at first, it’s barely a warning, and we’ve dispersed again after a mere 20 minutes.

But then, not an hour later, there’s the sirens again, and now the whole family is home. Outside, the lightning flashes in the sky, now eerily and prematurely dark. So we gather once more in the basement TV room, six together, while the guinea pig rolls gently in his plastic ball in the hallway.

And the kids play Temple Run while we follow the storm’s path online. And we sit in the desk chairs, on the floor, on the couch, and conversation is light, sprinkled with laughter, as outside, the hail pounds the windows, plinking sharply off the cars in the driveway.

And then the professor and the new upstairs guest are playing FIFA, and we’re watching, working, joking, and the mother of the house- herself a professor- is reading aloud the weather updates, adding her own dramatic flair.

And the storm is wild, but not yet destructive, and we’re cozy, comfortable, tucked into the warmth of the basement, and it’s not at all how I imagined this evening might be. But with the safety of the house, the protection of its walls, and the safety of home and this McHenry family, our evening passed just fine.


The Pulse of Community

There’s a miniature binder that we pass at church, every week. They give titles, special names to all such things, and ours is called the Community Binder, in which are recorded names of attendees; names, addresses, and contact information for visitors.

They’ve had our contact information for years, decades.

But every week, between the music and the preaching, the praising and the learning, we take a moment and we pass those little black binders. It used to be my job, when my own feet barely reached the floor, and bike-fall scabbed knees stuck out under my Sunday dresses. Now, the little sisters take turns, gripping that black pen and writing our last name in the space provided.

Recording our presence, our participation, week in, week out.

Today, we were just two, there in the pew at the front of the balcony, and I wrote 1/3 of the family after our last name, because it’s true: only El Papa and I were there.

The two adults attending church should probably get up! Tam called at 9:05 this morning, standing in the space between bathroom and bedrooms to serve as human alarm clock. And while the sisters moved about, cough, cough, coughing, and blowing their way through a second tissue box in as many days, we prepared for our morning, for our day.

Barely an hour later, I stand in the kitchen, haphazardly spreading chunks of butter on a toasted mini-bagel. I’m watching the butter melt, watching it seep into the craggy pores of crusty white dough, when I slowly become aware of the sounds behind me.

In El Papa’s office, tucked between dining room and kitchen, someone’s turned on the live stream of this morning’s church service. The first service is ending, and I am vaguely aware of the benediction being spoken as I wrestle more cold butter shavings onto my still-dry bagel. Besides me, El Papa pours his coffee. In the front room, the pair of littler ones cough, play, read; their voices punctuating and shaping the morning.

And then suddenly, a new sound catches my ear, holds me frozen where I am. On screen, in the office, the service has officially ended, the mingling has begun. Music, a worship song sung by a familiar voice, plays in the far background, chords and tune still recognizable.

But that’s not what’s caught me, what’s pulled me in.

Rather, it’s the sound running over the music, the sound moving and boiling, mixing and covering, that I’m listening to, standing in the kitchen while butter melts in yellow puddles on my cooling bagel.

It’s voices.

I can hear the community. I can’t make out words, of course, but I’m captivated by the rhythm, the rise and fall, of a hundred people talking, sharing, laughing, speaking. It sounds so unified, so whole, all those people making all that noise. As each indistinguishable voice folds together with all the others, all I can imagine is the names on those Community Binders, all those individual recordings, notes, scrawled titles, mixing and mingling, swirling into the unity called the Church and the Body and Fellowship.

And it’s repeated over and over again; before each service, after it once more, in smaller groups, throughout the week. Because community like that is living, breathing, noisy, and that heartbeat of fellowship, it just keeps pulsing, like the swirl of conversation I can hear, right there in the Sunday morning kitchen.


Florida Days 

It’s not like this is a normal thing we do. 

We go to Michigan, really. 

California, on special occasions. 

But now, this week, we’re in Florida, and so far, it’s been absolutely wonderful. 

Sunday brought 16 hours at Magic Kingdom, truly and honestly the happiest place on earth.

Today, we’re south, settling into a little rental condo while somewhere nearby, the ocean beats shells against Florida coastline.

And tomorrow, we’ll be there, watching waves wash over sand, over shells, over feet, all under the hot Florida sun. 


Sunday Afternoon Ice

We’re going to Naf Naf, I tell her, my voice hushed. We’re sitting side by side, in a pew far closer to the front of the church that we originally intended. I suppose that’s what happens when you arrive at 10:28am for a service that begins at 10:30am.

She nods in enthusiastic agreement, offers a response, as all around us, the morning’s worship set fills the high-ceilinged room, and outside, the first snowfall of 2015 settles slowly into grass, street, and car.

Of course, we’re still there two hours later, as the last of the lingerers shrugs coats onto shoulders, tightens scarfs around winter-pale necks. We’re still in the stone-tiled lobby of the building, our voices echoing across the wide space, and outside, the snow is still drifting down, blowing across the street in gusts whose strength we can barely assess from our insulated standpoint.

Slowly, in stuttering stops and starts that have one of us ready and seven others meandering each in their own direction- slowly, we get ready to leave. Four of us leave, pushing through the automatic side door out into the white-sky brightness of a winter day of white clouds and white snow and white, swirling wind. Another has already left- he’ll meet us there. Two others, a third then, are nowhere to be seen, but coming soon, no doubt.

It’s always a process, leaving this Sunday morning building.

But then, we’re six, there on the steps, and that’s enough for a party- and two more coming later- and we begin the walk to lunch, to that Chipotle-style promise land of Mediterranean food and the most unique french fries I’ve ever eaten. It’s a two-block journey; to the corner, past Subway, Pot-Belly’s, Jamba Juice. Across a plaza and a street and another plaza. Past Fountain Square and a towering office building or two, and even the black steel building that used to be Borders. You know, back when Borders existed.

We’ve made it around the corner, are nearly to Jamba Juice, when the wind hits. Blowing across the plaza in huge, snow-colored gusts, the cold whips at our ears, pulling hair every which way, and shoving tiny bits of ice down the necks of our coats, into our sleeves, down our boots. Heads down, we shriek, the wind carrying our voices away just as soon as the syllables leave our lips.

The father far ahead of us now, a little girl clasping each hand, we fall behind, fighting against the scorching, searing, freezing winter wind. My tights quickly turn from black to white, as the wind plasters bits of snow to the thick knit. My eyes turned down to shield them from the stinging flakes, I turn sideways, almost discombobulated, thrown for a loop, by the ferocious wind, and our need to move through it.

Shrieking still, fighting, and yet laughing at the fierce absurdity of it all, we cross the street, pass the (long empty) fountain, and finally, finally, step- or collapse- through the restaurant doors.

Shaking shoulders, brushing our arms, stamping our feet, we will the cold away from us. Inside moments longer, we pull coats off, slip scarves into pockets, stuff them down sleeves. Catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I laugh to see my head covered in ice; snow that had melted ever so slightly, frozen again atop my head.

We unwind and unwrap and settle in, moving erratically around the little restaurant as our group slowly arrives. Coats in a pile, purses scattered across seats, we occupy twice as much space as necessary, but the little girls have opinions, have a plan, and when the food is ordered, arrives, they direct. You there, you’re sitting here, you can go on that side.

And we sit, eight there in the warmth, with the food before us and the ice melting off our boots, into puddles below us. And the biting chill outside rivals the glow of contentment inside, and we linger long there, over out pita, our fries, our falafel. And when we go outside once more, stomachs full, hair now thoroughly melted, the wind is not quite so bad, and the cold is not quite so bitter, and the friendship is all the richer.


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