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“You do all the cooking ‘round here?“ I asked, pushing myself away from the table in the small dining room while patients toyed with their carrot cake and others slumped in wheelchairs. Above them on a wide-screen TV, a newsreader described Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for reunification with Taiwan, peacefully or otherwise.

“Just evenings,” she said as I approached her, wiping meaty hands on a cloth and tossing it upon the food warmer. Her eight-button chef coat fitted snuggly over her bosom like casing over sausage. “Only eighty-six tonight—The census is low ’cause of the holidays,” she added. Her speech suggested origins from the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta, her lightsome spirit from decades of graced angst. “Am glad to see you’ve been eatin’ better than when you came in,” she continued. “That you’re goin’ home tomorrow.” Her deep-set eyes bedazzled like the blinking lights on the flocked Christmas tree behind her.

“Yes, I am, and thanks for all you do each evening.” She had seemed tireless mingling among the patients, calling them by name, listening to their comments about the food, even returning to the kitchen to prepare special dishes for them. Hilarity infused her movements.

My feelings were running high. I had more to say. “And may we hug?” Instantly, her cook demeanor morphed into Earth Mother, with crooked teeth resembling centuries-old standing stones weathered into points; within that moment her juiciness sweetened me, commingling her world with mine—a psychic feeding like no other.

 

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It was late August, time for Mother’s jelly making for our winters during the war years. From a farmer’s stall in the country, Dad had already lugged baskets of purple grapes into the hot kitchen and placed them in the sink for the first washing. All was ready.

Perspiration glistening on her cheeks, her brow taut, Mother set to work. With gloved-hands she pulled grapes from their woody stems, rinsed them under the faucet, then plunked them into steel pots filled with water upon the counter. Next came hours of simmering the bubbling grapes over low burners. At intervals, she stirred them with a long-handled spoon between sips of ice water. Next came cups of sugar and more stirring. From the living room came strains of symphonies from the Capehart. Toward mid-afternoon, Mother poured the sticky mass through cheesecloth, hooked to the top of a tripod, and watched the gummy sweetness drip into the pot below.

That evening saw jars of grape jelly, sealed with paraffin wax, lining the pantry shelf. Her work finished, her splotched apron resembled the regal pastiche of a preschooler, her housedress soaked with perspiration.

The pungent aroma seeped into the breakfast room where I was sitting with the funnies from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Already, I was enjoying the sweetness of Mother’s grape jelly on warm buttered toast before walking to school.

With this blog, I honor our Mother’s courage in maintaining the semblance of normalcy in our home, all the while dreading Dad’s eligibility for the draft and becoming cannon fodder. That did not happen.

 

Slowly, the women’s locker room door opens. Out limps a wizened senior, the drape of her swimming suit clinging to her thigh bearing a recent incision. She studies each step as she leans upon her helper’s forearm and inches her way toward the pool.

“Oh! She’s back!” says another, with white cornrows patterning her head like crop circles. She begins to wave. “Carolyn! Carolyn! We’re here! Over here!” Others, already in the pool, wiggle off the noodles supporting them in the water and head toward the steps. As they splash, eyes glisten with joy; gaiety implodes their spirits.

It is Tuesday morning at the Clayton Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and time for their water aerobics class. Only one other group ripples the surface of the pool at the deep end.

Carolyn looks up, a grin parting her creased lips, her shoulders shrugging off the tension. She stops, draws a deep breath. These are her old friends, the Noddlers—Their storied lives sealed by years of such Tuesdays, always followed by lunch at Subway’s.

Such groups like the Noddlers evidence the multifaceted mystery of life. Despite the crimping of physical pain and other diminishments, their spirits thrive within the so-called amniotic fluids of the heated swimming pool. Like the unborn, they are becoming the beautiful women God intended. Such happens within each Tuesday’s splashing around.

We learn from them.

 

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