Summer came after the hardest winter I can remember, and with it June, and now July is wasting away. In a few weeks, my shed will breathe a sigh of relief as ten years of teaching storage finds new life in a new classroom across the water. Hampton’s salty tears drip-drip an archetypical anthem from the gutters. The rain had to end before it could start again. Is the same true for me?
A week of scattered showers reminds us all of the futility of making plans during hurricane season. Still, every teacher knows she needs to make the most of that staple summer staycation. On Sunday, my car showed up at the beach ready for surf and sun just as the sky open down-poured. At first, I was disappointed that my discounted bikini wouldn’t make a debut, but as the sun set, I burrowed into comforting pastimes.
In the kitchen cabinets, I found farfalle pasta, sweet peas, and enough of the right ingredients to whip up a chicken alfredo dish that delighted my taste buds. Before I could cook, however, I had to fix the shelf that had broken beside the refrigerator. And then I realized how much more efficient the workflow of the kitchen would be if the contents of that cabinet were moved to another, and so began an impromptu kitchen makeover that has already proved to invite me back to prepare a few new dishes this week. Mundane, right? I was alone for a few hours, moving and cooking, but a familiar voice in my head kept coaching me along, unwittingly.
My mom would tell us stories about how my grandfather would bring unannounced guests over for dinner in their parish beside the church, and Grandma Theresa would take whatever items she could find in the cupboards and whip up a gourmet meal. I never got to meet my mother’s mom, but her daughter raised me with three brothers and untold volumes of unannounced guests who perhaps shared more meals around our dinner table than with their own families, at times. Food goes with family. Family starts in the kitchen. Love is the secret ingredient that makes each meal seem worthy of a restaurant review. I learned these life lessons along with the secrets to preparing food on a budget, on a deadline, and on the spot. I never questioned her cooking counsel. It was scripture.
And like those Bible verses I memorized in grade school AWANA days, Mom’s advice still bubbles over while I’m checking to see if the pasta is al dente, having boiled salted water with a bay leaf just like she did for innumerable Sunday dinners all my life. In fact, when my family helped me moved into my rented bungalow four years ago, Mom set up the kitchen. For four years, I never questioned it. But a lot changed in four years, and now that I’ve taken up a new hobby experimenting with new recipes every day, I’m spending time in that room. I know why everything was where it was, but it stopped being functional, and there isn’t enough nostalgia to be impractical about such things. It was time for a change.
Ready to be off my feet and enjoy the storm, I cut on the best alternative to Hallmark movies without cable television: The Good Witch is the type of wholesome entertainment my family would have invariably huddled up around on those worn, burgundy couches with the black bear stool with spots worn in just for Dad’s feet. Those who know me well aren’t surprised I turned to my grand puzzle collection, but they might be shocked at my ability to break my own cardinal rule. I put away the unfinished Cinderella puzzle I was working on when Charming and I broke up. It was antithetical to the purpose of relaxation to punish myself putting together the pieces of a picture that won’t be realized in any way that matters. Then, I opened another Thomas Kinkade original and started over.
My approach is systematic, like everyone else who starts by piecing together the edge pieces to form the puzzle frame, only I don’t look at the cover after taking the pieces out of the box. Until the border is there, nothing has a place. I’d turned over all 750 pieces and fashioned the frame just as the current episode of my drama was coming to an end. The ground, the sky, the water… I could see just enough to know what the completed picture would be. Sadly, that’s as far as I’d gotten with the Cinderella puzzle before I stowed it away prematurely. Mom would always take time out to join me in a puzzle zone-out, but I know she preferred to be doing. It was enough for her to see the border and believe the final picture would turn out right, provided there were no missing pieces. In a way, she provided the theoretical scaffolding for my entire existence, believing essentially the same thing about how all the parts of my life would come together, about the picture the end of the puzzle would reveal.
It was my picture. Granted, if Mom’s life had been a Hallmark movie, then the story I wanted to write with my life either had major copyright infringements or would need to be dubbed a remake of an old favorite, like the Star Wars trilogy. In fourth grade, I had already decided I would be a teacher married to a professional with kids at the same age intervals my mom made each milestone. Those would be my milestones, after all. By the time my mother was my age, she already had three children and a house and a neighborhood Bible study. I look in the mirror and my thirty-five year old smile lines chuckle at the size two waist, unadulterated by pregnancy, the Italian childbearing hips purposeless in that discount bikini I didn’t get to wear this weekend.
I had a picture in mind when I started this puzzle of my life. Mom was with me when I put together the edge pieces and fashioned a frame where everything would fit. I never look at the cover after I take the pieces out. The life jigsaw puzzle metaphor struggles when I consider the fact I never had the center pieces to begin with… that I didn’t know what pieces would be missing from the start… that I never considered that like my kitchen cabinets after four years, that the picture might need changing, too.
Sunday night, after reorganizing, cooking, and placing the final edge piece, I watched the wholesome mother read the last page of a book to her child in bed. The good witch’s daughter is speechless for a moment, then whimsically exhales, “That was the perfect ending.” The salty tears that stirred could have rivaled the storm outside before I was even cognizant of the cause. Mom and I had a perfect ending in store for my life, and it didn’t happen. I’m starting over in a new job, and that means the old one had to end first. It didn’t end perfectly, but the story still owns its ending.
It hasn’t started raining again yet, but it will, and I’ll plan to change plans when necessary. On Thursday, the weather cooperated enough for my brother’s kids to celebrate their birthday at Busch Gardens. The twins are finally tall enough to ride Grover, the Sesame Street roller coaster. Tessa grabbed my hand to be her riding partner. Theresa is her grandmother’s namesake, but Tessa fits her four year old feistiness better. We rode twice, and I couldn’t stop laughing at her excitement. Between cries and shrieks and giggles, I could make out a repeated phrase: “I was so scared.”
With that huge smile lighting up her tiny face, you’d never believe Tessa was scared. She was ecstatic after the ride was over. Tessa and I didn’t get on that roller coaster to find the perfect ending. Even after experiencing fear, she was right back in line to do it again. The journey, its twists and turns, its ups and downs, took Tessa through a range of emotions, and if I judged a rollercoaster’s quality like I do that of a storybook, I would miss the point. There is no perfect ending for a roller coaster. It stops, and the rider remembers the journey.
Charming and I rode the bigger coasters last year. Tessa asked at family dinner tonight when she was going to see him again. I looked into those light eyes that just days ago glimmered with glee and faced her sadness with grown up words she understood. I truly am sorry for the unfinished puzzle.
Food goes with family, but now that I’m alone in the kitchen, it’s time for a creative makeover to that perfect ending, Thomas Kinkade, storybook picture of my life. If I discover there is only one silhouette in the frame, where will I find my legacy?