Weddings, Women, Sweets, and Wishes

Still life of a white cake on a blue tablecloth, messy painting, warm colors. My heirloom cookbook was born during a Washington D.C. snowstorm in February of what was then called “The Year 2000,” in my final months of singlehood before I was to be married in July. That storm barely registers in the city’s memory now: it was neither the Blizzard of 1996, with its eight-foot-high snowbanks, 2003’s freak President’s Day storm, nor was it the incomparable Snowmageddon of 2010 (which I wrote about on Good Letters).

However, the storm in 2000 was significant enough—knee-high drifts under a gunmetal sky and the threat of more on the way—that work was cancelled for two days, and my roommate Paula and I lounged around the apartment filled with snow-glare-white light, drinking wine, ordering pizza (somehow Domino’s still delivered), and watching the first season of Survivor with her boyfriend Johan, who had crashed at our place for the fun.

The second night we were housebound, Paula—a tall, raven-haired engineer originally from Bogotá—announced that she was going to bake a cake. Not just any cake—I, for one, was raised on Betty Crocker—but her Colombian grandmother’s homemade white cake. She went into the kitchen, and once she ascertained that, amazingly, we did have the many eggs and flour and baking powder and mountains of sweet cream butter required, began to separate eggs with the acumen she brought to technical drawing.

Paula beat a sweet yellow cake batter that, once it was poured carefully into floured cake pans, smelled high and sugary in the heat of the oven. The remaining egg whites she beat into thick stiff peaks, to which she added sugar until she’d beat a glossy meringue frosting—her grandmother Sophia’s treasured batido blanco—that held its shape when twirled with the back of a spoon. Once the layers were out of the oven and safely cooled, she sandwiched a layer of jam between them, and spread this thick luxuriant icing all across the top.

We ate. And we ate and we ate and we ate. I have had wonderful cakes in my time, but never one as purely delicious as this. It amazes me that the tight bodice of my ivory jacquard wedding dress still zipped up so easily at the next fitting, the skirt snug over foamy layers of tulle. [Read more…]

Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

vintage photo looking down on woman lounging on floor reading. This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain.

I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be.

I helped people fill out forms and connect with resources and each other, I learned Somali songs and went to weddings, I ate delicious food and learned how to put the proper amount of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and cardamom in the tea I made for us all.

I scolded people for driving without a license and visited women in their apartments after they gave birth. I delivered cheese and pineapple pizza to people, baked hundreds of Funfetti cupcakes, which were much too sweet for any of us. And in the end, I saw maybe one person learn to read. [Read more…]

The Next Abraham

motherhood-by-barbara-w-on-flickrA few days ago, I was blessed to be present at my grandson Abraham’s bris, his ritual circumcision. The mohel, the rabbi who officiated at and performed the circumcision, explained to the family and friends gathered for the ceremony, explained that a bris is the way God signs God’s name on a Jewish male baby.

The day before the bris, women marched in solidarity all around the country and the world. Baby Abraham’s father, his uncle on his father’s side, and his oldest brother participated in the march in New York. So did the baby Abraham’s aunt on his mother’s side, uncle, and five-month-old niece. They were joined by baby Abraham’s stepmother on his mother’s side.

My wife, baby Abraham’s maternal grandmother, the baby’s biological grandfather on his mother’s side, and I stayed home with the newborn and his mother. At just a week old, baby Abraham was still too young to be taken to the march. And his mother was still recovering from the delivery. Had Abraham been a month or more old, I’m sure we all would have joined the rest of the family on the march. .

Everyone knows what happened on Friday January 20, the day before the women’s march.

It was a charged moment to witness the circumcision of a baby, marking the moment he ritualistically joined the Jewish people’s covenant with God. It was a charged moment to welcome a baby to the Divided States of America.

But this bris in particular was a deep moment of union, a moment that, for those present and for all those who will, God willing, get to know Abraham as he grows, marked, in its quiet way, a mending of the nation, even the world. This bris marked a moment of joining in love parts of the world that some would keep apart by instilling in us fear of certain others, by dividing the world simplistically, dangerously into friends and enemies. [Read more…]

The World at Midday

Person walking on the road in the snow during midday; the sky is gray and overcast, the street is rimmed with trees with every branch covered in snow.I spent Christmas Eve with my mom last month for the first time in years. It was unexpected; she was happy and well.

All through the drive to my aunt’s house—Dad at the wheel, Mom turning the music up—my sister and I watched the lights and thought about extraordinary transformations. How anything is possible, though it rarely seems so.

Being with my whole family felt like an amazing gift, like the world had opened up and made itself entirely new.

I keep thinking about how to say things I can’t say. The problem’s not inappropriateness or offense; it’s entrée. Square peg in a round hole and all that, subjects that don’t come up or don’t make sense in the time people have to offer them. Subjects no one wants.

A couple of days after Christmas, my mom was in the hospital for a week after she burned herself with cigarettes, and then she came home and made chili. These things happen.

The day I learned that my mom had been hospitalized, snow fell in icy dendrites. The wind came from the east. The world might have ended; the sun was nowhere to be found. How easily we find ourselves abandoned. [Read more…]

Martin, Everett, and Me

caroline-langston-imageI am writing this essay on the fortieth anniversary of my father’s death, so my immediate thought about Martin Luther King, Jr. this morning is of those four precious small children left fatherless on April 4, 1968.

There are two things I’m thinking about fathers: The nimbus of their influence continues to fall across your life, no matter how early they’re taken from you. Whether it’s shimmering or shadowy depends upon them.

When those fathers are departed, you have to go in search elsewhere for substitutes to replace them. There’s an ancient tradition of spiritual/intellectual fatherhood: Socrates taught Plato, and Plato taught Aristotle, goes the saying.

And this is where I have to jump in to say this: There was not much said about Martin Luther King, Jr. when I was growing up in Mississippi in the 1970s and 80s. It’s hard to explain this to people outside the South, but this was true even among folks who were racial moderates, like my parents, who supported public school desegregation but were otherwise limited by their time and place.

Of course, whole volumes of history regarding the Civil Rights movement were just not mentioned among white people when I was growing up—even when they took place in near walking distance from where we lived. All I recall was my mother’s mention that a country church was “where the Freedom Riders” stopped for the night, and that my oldest sister—already, things were changing—had asked to be driven out to see them arrive. [Read more…]