Brittle

“Chris, the timer is going to go off. Can you turn the cookie sheet and put five minutes on the clock?”

I grew up in a house that had a dysfunctional oven. Nothing was ever done to correct it, and when it was in use, care had to be taken to watch the time or half of what was in there would burn.

It seemed that my mom was always off in another room when it had to be handled. If not done right, there would be smoke, a scorched unrecognizable and inedible object. A pizza could quickly become a plastic frisbee and a pan of brownies transformed into a brick.

So when she told me I had to deal with whatever she was baking, I moved fast because that night’s meal hung balanced precariously between life and death.

The heat blast that came from it when the door was opened was nuclear radiation quality. With my eyes closed and oven mitts on, I repositioned whatever was the scientific experiment that night. We were in unfamiliar territory and what came to the table in the evening was anyone’s guess.

My dad was put on a low fat diet, and a doctor’s visit had revealed that his cholesterol was out of line. His Saturday breakfast of eggs and bacon was replaced by whatever was considered devoid of the ‘F’ word. Not a thought was given to high sugar content as long as he was eating artificial, man made products with enough preservatives to provide it with a shelf life of at least ten years. But, by God, he would have triglycerides that would be phenomenal.

It was a sure fire way to help him live longer and make him hate his existence.

He was raised on meatloaf, pork chops, and chocolate cake that he poured gravy on. The first recollection I have of him doing that, I knew it was wrong. I tried to tell him not to eat it, and maybe I would have warded off his cholesterol issues, but he turned a deaf ear to my gagging. He sealed his fate.

All of his favorites were off-limits, and he was undergoing a massive adjustment with his taste buds and mentally trying to cope with what she was throwing at him.

One night she tried to use crispy rice cereal to make a coating on the chicken. I don’t know what other ingredients she put in it, but when he went to take some, all of these tentacle-like strings inhibited his ability to get it on his plate, and it kept bouncing away from him like a gigantic Slinky.

In exasperation, he put the spoon back and said he was not going to eat it. It had become like a workout for his bicep. She somehow got some of the glop on his plate, and he ate it to make it to another day. He was almost living the dream.

Occasionally, I was the unlucky recipient of his lunch because she sometimes mixed the bags up. He basically ate a sandwich heavily laden with mustard and crammed with lettuce. When I got that by mistake, I fasted. He, on the other hand, had the best meal he had in weeks.

“Chris, I got your lunch today. It was great.”

I had taken one for the team.

Somehow, he adjusted, and she found recipes that he accepted half-heartedly. When Christmas came around, though, he relaxed a little, took a vacation from it almost entirely.

She baked a variety of cookies which he had a hard time staying away from. She would stuff them into their big freezer, and he would grab a handful because calories don’t count when you steal them away from the watchful eye of the prison warden.

I don’t know how this started, but they joined forces to make peanut brittle at that time of year. I have made it, and I have never needed help, so I still am unclear why this was a team effort. It just shouldn’t have been.

One year, my arrival was way off as I went over to their house at the height of him stirring the liquidy syrup on the stove. It has to get to a specific temperature, and a candy thermometer is needed so you know exactly when it’s done. It has to get to 300 degrees usually to create a hard crack texture. The only thing cracking up was him.

He nervously kept an eye on it while the bubbles began to increase the whole time he stood there.

Meanwhile, she stood by with a box of baking soda and a teaspoon. The mixture gets thick as it cooks, and you have to keep it from scorching. This is when the yearly argument would ensue.

“You have to throw that in quick.”

“I know, John. I have done this a million times.”

“I don’t want to burn this.”

“Keep stirring. Move it around more.”

“I can’t move it around more. It’s getting thicker.”

Two bags of spanish peanuts had been added; those weren’t the only nuts in the room.

“Let me do it then.”

“No. You will burn it.”

“I will not. Just let me see.”

He would not release the spoon to her, but he kept voicing his anxiety.

“If we don’t get this to a certain temperature, it’s going to be sticky and will get stuck in your teeth when you eat it. I don’t like it like that.”

“I know. Let me see what it’s like.”

I should have left. It doesn’t get better from here.

“I am sweating,” he said. This was common for him, and not so much from standing over the burner, but his nerves.

She realized I was standing there watching. I still had my hand on the doorknob and was considering going back out to my car.

“Hey! You’re just in time to watch us fight,” she said, laughing. She and I tried to talk about other things while he kept sighing, stirring, and fretting. It was good he wasn’t in charge of national emergencies.

“He gets too upset over this.”

“Why do you two do this every year?”

“It’s tradition,” she said with a smile.

“So, you purposely put yourselves in a position to argue every year?”

“It makes us closer.” She always had this way of trying to diffuse him while in the heat, literally, of the battle.

“Hey!” he said. “Stop talking and pay attention to what I am doing. I need you to throw that in right when I say to.”

This elicited a frown from her. No one told her to stop talking, ever.

“I can talk to her all I want,” she said.

Here it comes; I still stood right by the door.

“You always are talking. I need it quiet.” He said, staring straight into the saucepan in front of him.

“You would think a man who had six kids running around here at one time would be able to handle us talking. Chris, what are you up to today?”

Now she was going to drag me to take her side, and he had tripped her rebellious switch.

“I..uh..” I didn’t want to commit.

“Are you paying attention?” he barked. As the temperature rose, so did he.

“Yes, John. I can do two things at once. I can talk and pay attention to what you are doing, but I don’t get all bent out of shape about things like you do. Why are you here, Chris?”

I had words forming in my head that kept getting stopped before being spoken. I did not want to be in the middle of this madness.

“You better be ready with that baking soda when I say it has to go in.”

She grabbed the oven mitt and whacked him with it.

“I will be!”

It didn’t phase him.

“Don’t goof around. I need you to be ready!”

“This is why men don’t have babies, Chris.”

We were all over the board on subjects, just because they were both in the kitchen at the same time trying to accomplish a task.

“I think I could have had kids just fine,” he said in his defense.

“No way! You stub your toe, and you go down for days! A little sniffle sets you back. Having a baby would kill you.”

“Being quiet would kill you.”

Her response was always to act hurt, laugh, and keep on talking.

“See? He isn’t nice to me, Chris.”

Still trying to get me on her side.

“I am very nice to you! Do you have the teaspoon and soda ready?”

“For Pete’s sake! I am right here with both of them. Can’t you see me?”

His glasses were fogging up from the steam rising upward.

“I am so hot!”

“Let me see what you are doing.”

“No. Just wait until I tell you what to do.”

“So, why are you here, Chris?”

“I don’t know,” I said, forgetting why I had even come in the door.

I saw him lean in to read the small print on the thermometer.

“I think it is time. I can’t read it.”

She tried to see it, so both of their heads were close together as they fought to see what the number was.

“I can’t see with you sticking your nose in here,” he said.

“I can’t see with you not moving out of my way!”

“Get the glass of water!” He said.

They didn’t trust the reading, so the old-fashioned way of doing things was still used. A small drip was put into a cold cup of water, and if it wasn’t sticky, it was good to go.

Both of them huddled over the glass and saw the crystal shape form.

“It’s ready! Get the soda! Right now!”

He moved the pan over to the next burner but accidentally pushed her across the room, making her drop the teaspoon and the soda that she had ready.

“Get it in there!” He said.

“I am trying to!”

She scrambled to pick up what he had knocked out of her hand.

“What is wrong with you, woman? Hurry up!”

I was in crazy land. These two had been my role models as a kid. Now, I wasn’t sure why I ever listened to them.

“I have to get a new teaspoon. This one was on the floor, and it’s dirty now.”

You did not take anything off the floor that was dropped and use it in her world. Her nurse’s training was in full gear to sanitize all things.

“Hurry up! You have to throw it in right now!”

She started finding another measuring spoon in a drawer that was not known for its ease in locating anything. Forks, knives, and other metal objects were being tossed around as she rummaged through, trying to find a clean one.

He was having a stroke and a heart attack all at once. Maybe even a brain embolism.

Finally, she did her part and threw in the key ingredient. The mixture puffed up like it was supposed to. But, the next step had to be executed.

“That has to be put on the cookie sheet now,” he said.

We weren’t out of the woods yet.

There was more pushing, shoving, trying to get past each other. Their workspace was small, and when one moved one way, so did the other. They kept crashing into each other.

“John, just slow down. You are going to drop it!”

“Move. I can do it.”

She felt the need to keep on stirring while he transported the pan across the room to the kitchen table. She was on her tiptoes because he was taller than her.

It finally made it to its destination. I knew if I came back the following year, I would be a witness to it all over again.

“You are spreading that too thin,” she said.

Not able to take it anymore, she grabbed the spatula out of his hand. He stood over her watching her every move.

“You aren’t moving that quick enough. One side of that is going to be thinner than another.”

“John, I know what I am doing. Just let me do it!”

He sighed, looked at me.

“When did you get here?”

I was inches from him the whole time.

“I have been here too long,” I said.

Once he saw that she was not inept, he said,

“I am out of here!”

“We are making two batches,” she said. “You aren’t going anywhere.”

“What? I thought we were done!” His whole Saturday was going to hell in a handbasket.

“We always make two.”

He rolled his eyes at me.

“I am going to go sit down somewhere for a second. I am sweating!”

At this point, his glands should have been running on empty.

“So, why are you here?” she asked, turning to look at me.

Now that she had finished using the spatula, she decided to taste it, and she bit off some and started chewing.

“I had nothing better to do than come here to see this,” I said. My time was free-flowing before I had kids, so there was no real reason to be there other than to enjoy their marital bliss.

“This is chewy,” she said. She ripped off another piece with her teeth while holding the spatula up and looking at me.

“Is work busy?” she asked. “He is going to be so mad that this turned out so chewy.”

Her jaw was working overtime. But she kept trying to engage me in a conversation.

She had no idea that she was eating the spatula, and I could see a huge bite taken off the hard plastic corner. She kept on struggling to eat it.

“You might want to stop doing that,” I said.

“Why? I am taste testing it to see if we did okay. It’s just really hard to chew!”

I grabbed the spatula out of her hand.

“Look at this. Don’t eat anymore of that. Spit it out!”

Her eyes got huge, and she ran over to the garbage.

“What’s wrong with it?” he said from the living room.

She and I started laughing, so we could not speak.

“Is it sticky? Is to too chewy?” he yelled.

That just made us laugh more.

“What is wrong with you two?”

If a stranger had come into that house and observed, a determination could have easily been made that they had the worst relationship. But, I knew it was only a tiny snippet of the entire picture.

Our walk with God is sometimes the same way. We get in the way, worry about the outcome, and if someone from the outside sees us, we might be marked as having no faith. But, all that is required is a mustard seed, and they must have had that going for them.

Anytime she asked him to do anything, he did it. Maybe not without a grumble or two, but he complied because he wanted her to be happy. And when he needed her, she was right there to help. They worked together most weirdly at times, but at the foundation of it, they kept each other a priority, working to keep their hearts soft and not brittle.

(No spatulas were harmed or injured in the making of this year’s double batch)
(Unassisted and in a meditative state)

Made to Last

“Was it love at first sight?” She asked. I looked over at him and already knew the answer.

“What?” He asked.

He looked to me for guidance because he couldn’t hear her behind the mask.

“When you met your wife, was it love, at first sight?”

The inquiry was in its processing stage, and then I saw the understanding hit.

“No!” He said as if having to endure it again.

“Really? Why not?” She asked.

He crossed his arms tightly across his chest and said,

“She was a prude!”

“Well, you were no catch either,” I said in her defense, recalling her version of their first meeting. He smiled at me, knowing I was telling the truth.

It was a blind date, set up by friends that were a couple. They thought the two of them were compatible, but it was an act of God because they were from two different planets.

While she grew up in a small town in North Dakota, highly disciplined, he was on the streets of St Paul, causing a whole bunch of mischief. He had learned how to scam people wherever he could just to get a few cents in his pocket.

While still in elementary school, he took a handful of free pamphlets from the church and sought out the homebound elderly in his neighborhood.

“I would sell them. It was a quick way to make money. I had to sit and talk to them sometimes, which was boring. Sometimes I got a cookie, which made it better. But I always got paid.”

He was also in the recycling business. A small store sold pop in bottles which he and his friends would steal. They would drink it and then go in the shop’s back door where the owner would give them change. Then, they would race around to the front and buy candy.

“You could get a lot of penny candy back then.” He always said it like he wore a badge of honor.

He attended Catholic school where nuns were at the ready to whack him across the forehead with a ruler for any infraction. This did not deter him from getting out of line. He and a friend would sneak into the empty church during recess and roll under the seating.

It was on a hill with a dramatic slope from the back to the front.

“We would get on our sides to see who could get to the front first.”

One day, the back door flew open, echoing across the empty sanctuary.

“Who is in here?”

The two boys didn’t move a muscle, hiding under the pews, hoping she didn’t find them. He saw her long, ankle-length dress and heard the swinging of the beads as she went row by row.

“Jackie! Are you in here?”

Out of all the kids, she could name from his class, he was on the radar.

His prayers were answered, and she didn’t find them. And instead of being led by fear, he and his companion continued their daily race. If he could get away with it, he did it.

He graduated with all F’s and was sent into the military.

Meanwhile, my mom was scoring at the genius level on IQ tests and was the valedictorian of her class. She walked the straight and narrow path and lived under her father’s constant verbal and tormenting abuse. She escaped to nursing school in Minnesota, and this is where their two very mismatched worlds collided.

Doctors were in pursuit of her, and she went out on dates quite frequently. The night before her encounter with my dad, a suitor had brought her a corsage that she had pinned on a dress coat; she left it on because the flowers were fresh.

“I had to come down this long staircase,” she had told me. “He was waiting at the bottom.”

When she took the last step, he turned to her, pointed at the corsage, and said sarcastically,

“What do you think we are going to a ball or something?”

That set the tone for the night. She instantly hated him. And to send the message, she crossed her arms and made sure he came nowhere close to her.

“I was getting long-stemmed red roses and gifts from men who already had graduated from medical school. There was one in particular that I thought was going to develop into something more serious.”

I always envisioned the outcome of that. By some chance, what if she had married a wealthy doctor and I had been born into it?

“But your dad and I were a marriage made in heaven.”

And just like that, the pony, the outdoor pool, and everything else I ever wanted would vanish.

An unseen force was pushing them together; they saw each other again and somehow figured it out. While she loved picnics, he abhorred them. She loved to dance, but he didn’t. But she had a way of getting her way.

One night when he refused to dance with her, she accepted the invitation of another man. He had gone to use the restroom, and when he came back, he couldn’t find her. When he saw she was enjoying herself with someone else, that was the last time he said no to dancing.

Later, they found out they had been at the same party at a house before knowing one another. As they talked about it, all the details were the same, but they never saw each other there.

“We were just supposed to be together,” she would always say even when things weren’t perfect.

“We got into a big fight, and I took my engagement ring off right before the wedding,” she told me. “I was done with the whole thing. But then he came and looked so devastated that I forgave him.”

I guess when a divine plan is at work, anything can happen. I had seen her unflinching attitude once her mind was made up. But he somehow had worn down her defenses.

“He kissed me and slid the ring back on my finger.”

There went my mansion on easy street.

I didn’t come into their lives until way after the initial flames had flickered. One child after another had arrived, and I was the last of the six. When my dad wanted my attention and said my name, he would accidentally rattle off all five ahead of me before landing on mine. One morning I woke up to my mom calling in the dog.

“Chris! Stop barking and get in this house!”

“Did you just yell my name out the door?” I asked from my room that was near the kitchen.

This had now gone to a whole other level. She opened my door and looked at me in shock; it was an expression I came to know well as she tried to keep up with so many kids and things to attend to.

Many years later, while I was in high school, I had come home one evening to find him lying on the kitchen floor trying to fix the dishwasher. He had gotten off work early because it was their anniversary, and he had walked into a pool of water.

He could usually repair anything, build what she wanted, and never took a car in for an oil change. He did everything himself. But this was proving to be a challenge.

“We were supposed to go out,” she said when I came in. “He’s been working on this for hours.”

I could tell that the tension in the room was high as his frustration was climbing, and he was hungry.

Much to his dismay, he could not remedy whatever was wrong. This meant he would have to call for someone to help, but it was way past the time to do that. It was a blow to his ego.

Their evening out turned into a pizza delivery, and she got out paper plates. He still seemed annoyed as he mindlessly ate while still trying to figure out why he couldn’t solve the problem.

Suddenly, he came back to reality and remembered this wasn’t a usual weeknight.

“I got you a card,” he said, jumping up to go get it. He came back and handed it to her.

She opened it and started to laugh to the point she had to put it down on the table.

He looked at her like she needed to be committed to the nearest facility.

“Why are you laughing? That card isn’t funny!”

She tried to catch her breath, and once she did, she read it out loud.

“To my dearest wife, on her birthday!” This put her right back over again while he just shook his head and said,

“Dammit! I hate this day!”

She laughed louder. But, I saw him start to relax. For her, it was the perfect anniversary with no dishes to do, no meal to cook, and he had made her smile unexpectedly.

When something is meant to be, God will make it happen for the benefit of both. In Ecclesiastes 4:9 it says:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor: One can help the other up if either of them falls down. NIT)

That was the secret to their success, even if it looked worn out, frazzled, and all-out insane. They used their strengths to help one another’s weaknesses.

My parent’s entire relationship was filled with moments where they had to see the good in the middle of big messes. No matter how bad things got, it was made to last.

(All smiles until all the kids showed up; 68 years later this week)