All posts by Greta McDonough

I am a writer, therapist, and college professor living and writing in the Ohio Valley. My work takes me to the Bluegrass, Appalachia, and Eastern Europe. I teach and I write. I read. Everything.


Out of sheer boredom and the notion that, really, I should pamper myself in these times of isolation, I have taken to ordering all sorts of personal care products on-line. My Facebook page is lousy with pop-up ads for this stuff, and if you click on an ad, just once and by mistake, you will be inundated with them, too.

This clickbait is subversive and perhaps even a little bit evil, but I succumb on a regular basis. I ordered, on purpose, a subscription box from FabFitFun, because Leanne Morgan told me to. You know Leanne, the comedienne from Knoxville, with her hysterical video clips. She said it would be nice to treat ourselves during COVID, and yes, I thought. It would. Here came my winter box — they are curated by season — and in it I found the following.

A Vera Bradley cosmetic bag, small, but cute, and a really nice Pottery Barn diffuser set that is supposed to smell like the Solstice. Then all sorts of make-up and skin care products, all full size, and my favorite, a set of WEI “purify and glow” masks.

They arrived in a pretty little box with what looks like K-cups inside, each containing a dab of facial mask, applied with a soft brush (included) so I can, you know, purify and glow. The presentation is so nice I can’t bring myself to get into it, and I have so few people around I want to glow for, I have decided to save it for “good.”

You get to choose some of the things in the box they send you, but I didn’t, and so now I own Kate Spade workout socks. I don’t know what a workout sock is, still don’t, even after looking at them. They appear to be inferior no-shows, I will never wear them and I would be too embarrassed to re-gift them.

I stumbled across the Smallflower Modern Apothecary online shop, and this one was a keeper. They had me at “German formula Nivea.” You know Nivea, old-fashioned, granny-like, in the nice blue tin. Our US Nivea is not the same as their Nivea. The European formula is so much nicer, and I ordered some, just to have something to look forward to.

I ordered a few bars of Ha soap, too, an inexpensive brand I use in Olomouc. It isn’t particularly good soap, but I like smelling it and getting all nostalgic. The website is full of unusual and interesting products, and if nothing else, perusing it is a nice ten minute diversion.

When my Nivea arrived, I had already read comments on the webpage suggesting mixing it with organic almond oil to soften your skin to a luxurious degree. I tried it, and really, it was so very effective, but, you all, what a glopped up mess you are until it soaks in.

Which it does, and quickly, but be prepared.

As an alternative to all that slathering, I then found — and you know I purchased — Kate McLeod’s Sleep Stone. It is an all-natural puck of cocoa butter, almond oil and other good things, that you warm gently in your hands or rub all over yourself, and then you are moisturized and fragrant and off you go to bed. It comes with its own little muslin bag, and I am sucker for little muslin bags. I don’t know why.

My niece was glowing, just glowing at Thanksgiving, and I commented on it. She proceeded to give me the deets on her skincare regimen, which included both an exfoliant and moisturizer you can’t get in town. So I tracked them down elsewhere, and they have now arrived, sitting in their boxes, looking like they mean business—because the expensive stuff is always packaged like products that might require a prescription.

I haven’t used them yet, because I am setting up the particulars for a clinical trial, to see if I can tell a difference between my normal routine of rose hip oil and a plain white wash cloth.

But I draw the line at this… lip mask. Yes, a mask to use, it is recommended, for one week straight in the beginning, to moisturize and condition your lips. Full of Japanese peach extract, rose and camellia oil, to “protect and moisturize your pout.”

Honestly, I thought that was what greasy fried chicken was for.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I was burnishing a piece of writing and I couldn’t remember the song with the catchy refrain, “Černy Glaza,” the one we sang over and over again, deep into the night, somewhere in a Ukrainian forest.

Perhaps my writing would flow better if I could find this song on the internet, for surely, someone, somewhere, has recorded it. Youtube seemed so promising, but I turned up nothing. The problem, it turns out, is this. When I first searched for the song I guessed wrong at the spelling of the word, glaza, which I knew meant “eyes.”

My next attempt was much more successful. Oh, so successful. I decided to do a backward search using Google Translator and BOOM! There it was, the proper spelling. Scooted over to Youtube, and BOOM! again, Černy Glaza popped right up, and I recognized it immediately from the jaunty electronic keyboard intro to the repeating chorus, which came back to me in a rush. I pounded time on the table and sang along for at least five minutes.

What times we live in. No running to the library, sending letters and waiting for correspondence—for if Youtube had failed me a second time, I would merely have emailed my friend, Kveta, and asked her the song. Or even better, instant messengered my musician pal, Lenka, who is always on Facebook, and she would have told me. I might have to wait for a response until it is morning there, but really, not long.

If you looked at my phone right now, you would see exactly one game on it — sudoku. I can’t imagine playing games when there is all that great stuff to read out there, just with a click and a swipe. I look up things constantly. Constantly.

In November I was trying to find the name of a champagne I had tried and really liked. Before I went to find a bottle, I thought I might need to know how to pronounce it. I googled and there it was, and then I Youtubed a video to learn how to pronounce French wines, because I didn’t want to sound like a goober asking for it, but also, I didn’t want to sound like an affected snob, either, and get it wrong that way.

Luckily, it has a nice, straightforward name, with the first part already something we are familiar with, Perrier. But while I was there, I thought the nice Frenchman might ought to teach me how to pronounce other champagnes, just in case. He has several videos, so I watched them all.

It comes up so seldom, which champagne I prefer, but the next time it does, I will be ready. I may be so feeble by that time I need someone to hold the coupe to my lips as I dribble most of it down my front, but I will have pronounced it correctly.

And just now, researching the correct way to pronounce “coupe,” I have learned from a bubble physicist, Helen Czerski, that the perfect-shaped champagne glass is neither the flute nor the coupe. It is a wine glass with a bowl shaped like a brandy snifter, but not a snifter, served with the champagne poured only about half-way up. I know the part that holds the wine is called the bowl, because I looked that up, too, googling “anatomy of a wine glass.”

According to Dr. Czerski, this particularly shaped wine glass creates the slow bubble-making machine of the coupe, while capturing all the flavor bubbles that burst on our tongues and up our noses, like the flute. Turns out, smelling is one of the ways we taste. Czerski is the real deal, too, Cambridge trained, a bubble and ocean expert, and the author of “Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life.”

Which should arrive tomorrow, as I scooted over to Amazon and ordered a copy while you weren’t looking.

I might continue down this rabbit hole for a few more hours, and I can tell you with certainty I thought this column was going somewhere else altogether. But really, it was apt to be ponderous and preachy and not nearly as much fun as thinking about champagne bubbles bursting in our faces. Even if you never touch the stuff, still fun.

Perhaps I was a research assistant in another life, but I love knowing things. I love sharing what I learn. A lot. I don’t know why my friends find me so tiresome. I really don’t.

A resolute New Year

I’m not one for resolutions, too much pressure and all my passive-aggressive tendencies kick in and it isn’t attractive. I truly hate to be told what to do, even if it is me telling myself to do what I came up with in the first place. I will not tolerate it.

This probably isn’t the year to waste much time on resolutions, anyway. We have hope on the horizon, two vaccines out there now, and more on the way. But even with the most spectacular logistics, we will be in our bubbles and pods for some time to come, and if we have learned anything in 2020, its that, at a moment’s notice, things can change.

We toddle toward the new decade as we leave behind the old one, masked, sanitized, and paunchy with sour dough and banana bread overload. But maybe with some new skills we had forgotten we have.

Like reading for pleasure.

I have read more this year than ever. The classics, murder mysteries, award winners, pure trash. I’ve loved them all. Right this very minute I am supposed to be reading Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” with my book group. They wanted something nice and long for the holidays.

We ZOOM our weekly meetings. Don’t tell them, but I can’t seem to get beyond chapter six, because I put the book down and have to start all over, it’s Dickens, after all, and I forget what I’ve just read.

My friends will have read at least through chapter twenty-three or so. I don’t even bother writing down the reading assignments now because I will never catch up. But that doesn’t keep me from attending the meeting, and, I am not kidding, contributing. But mostly I just want to hear their voices and see their faces and listen to the discussion. They come prepared. They are like a set of human cliffsnotes performing just for me.

My life has grown quieter, simpler, although I am more aware of the passage of time than ever. It seems to move so slowly, and yet I get fewer things done in a day. Even so, I am as leisurely, as unperturbed as I have ever been about this lack of industry. And I was pretty unperturbed before the virus.

I wonder if we are marking time in a different way, what with all the upheaval and change upon change upon change. Certainly we have all had to relearn habits and moderate expectations, and that impacts the rhythms of our days.

As alone as I have been most days—and I am such an extrovert I have almost no inner life—I have rarely been lonely and have come to value solitude. There is a peace in aloneness that I have never sat still long enough to appreciate. And aloneness here doesn’t only mean being solitary… perhaps you have been alone with just your immediate family in a way that is new to you, and perhaps you, too, have found the value in being still together, with no place to be and no distractions to pull you away.

And maybe that togetherness got to be too much, and you decided that some fresh air would do you good. And off you went on nice long walks, or you dusted off your bike and rode into the wind. Or you dug in the dirt and planted herbs and flowers, or built pizza ovens, or created a whole new outdoor space where crab grass used to grow.

Human beings are amazing creatures. When we finally stood up and walked on two feet it created all this room for our brains to grow large in all the right places. We make exceptional use of those opposable thumbs. It helps us persevere. With broken and heavy hearts some days, and in spite of uncertainty, and frustration, and fear, we figure it out.

It isn’t as if this pandemic hasn’t taken a toll. You would never hear me say that. But we know what to do. We have been doing it. I suppose if I had one resolution, it would this.


Read those books, get out the calendar I once used for appointments and lectures and presentations and pencil in dates for morning walks, make note of ZOOM meetings and virtual yoga. Pay attention to the good lessons of 2020, and there were some. Be smart, but be brave, too. Pay attention. Reach out. Connect. Rest. Calm down. Wash those hands.


I first saw the Christmas Star in a college planetarium when I attended a special program, most likely for extra credit. It was a lecture designed to show what the Wise Men saw, and what they followed, pieced together by ancient and modern knowledge of the movement of the heavens. I was taking astronomy that fall semester, and was particularly dedicated to it, which was odd, because such dedication meant I had to climb the big hill to the Thompson Science Complex several times a week to sit in the dark and learn all the constellations for each season.

The planetarium was open for study sessions only in the afternoons and evenings and that I would willingly make this trek on darkening autumn afternoons is also odd, because I was a lazy student and thought all formal learning should stop before lunch.

Our final would require us to sit in the pitch-black room with a pointer in our hand. We would be instructed to close our eyes while they spun the sky around, mostly so we wouldn’t get sick, and then we were to begin, by looking up and saying,

“This is the summer sky. The major constellations are Cassiopeia the Queen,” while passing the pointer over all her stars, and then “This is Cygnus the Swan, Ursa Major…” and so on until we had properly named and pointed out the required constellations. Then they spun the sky again.

My roommate had the same class and we often went together to study the stars. But lots of times I went alone. I think what I liked about those afternoons was the solitude they provided, the cool dark of an empty auditorium, soft cushioned chairs circled beneath a dome of stars. I could think and breathe. Or simply breathe, and wonder a little about a universe too impossible to understand. To feel small, insignificant, and getting that this is just about exactly right.

There is a peace to be found in knowledge like that.

This week the Christmas Star returned, or what scientists have come to believe may have been the Christmas Star. And yet, it isn’t a star at all, but two planets aligned just so to blaze for a time as one brilliant light. I gazed over a field on the outskirts of town with strangers and waited until the orange flame of sunset fled the horizon. Staring at a place a little to the right of a waxing gibbous moon, the sky was dark, and dark, and darker still.

And then it wasn’t.

Hanging halfway between the moon and the horizon, Saturn and Jupiter met in a great conjunction, so close it appears not a fifth of our moon would fit between them. And they blazed as one to the naked eye, separating only when viewed through binoculars. It isn’t difficult to see how the Magi saw in it a sign, these stars as steady as a lantern, held aloft, come from out of nowhere to cast a beckoning light.

In this fourth week of Advent, we focus our minds on peace and the Wise Men are good stewards of that word. No frantic shepherds, these fellows, no boisterous and exuberant angels with trumpets and noisemakers, their scanty sashes blowing in a whirlwind of their own making. We see the three kings in profile, atop their camels, calmly traversing the deserts and plains. They approach slowly, serenely, peacefully, in every nativity play, in every imagining of their arrival.

They are the pure essence of peace and goodwill.

Thinking of the Christmas star, and the wise kings, while watching in a field with others called by a star, or what looks like a star, I was happy at our good fortune with a clear Kentucky night. The Ohio River Valley so often robs us of astronomical delights with cloudy skies or haze.

It is good to be reminded that expectation and hope and joy culminate in peace. In this quiet week, in this year of such sorrow, we can reach for peace and walk slowly with it, bearing it as a wise man might, with dignity and certainty and goodwill–which is another word for love.

the joy of small things

This third week of Advent celebrates joy, and it even has its own special candle, pink, but it’s not mandatory the candle you light this week be pink. But maybe it helps.

Because what are we to make of joy in this brittle season? Where might we find it, this kind of happiness that is more than happiness? Deeper, more intense than happiness is joy, and in the stillness we are to be cogitating on joy, and it is a heavy lift.

We are weary, we are sad, we have strung lights and decorated our homes before Thanksgiving, just to feel a little bit of it, joy. Sitting here on a cold and grey afternoon, I wonder when the corners grew so dark, and why I have been so lazy in getting my tree up, for surely those little lights might cheer me. I put on Christmas music to tide me over.

I’m not in the mood for chestnuts or sleigh bells so I dial up Gregorian Christmas chants and what was I thinking? They are beautiful, yes, but also mysterious and weighty and maybe a little creepy in a certain mood. Not always, but they fall hard on my ear just now, this year, in this season.

Handel’s “Messiah” might be a better choice since I sang it in high school when the choral society was short on altos. But no, not that, either. So I’m back to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and that suits me just fine. You can almost hear the horses’ hooves thundering across the steppes, the words and music Christmasy, but with a rasping icy urgency from the North, complete with a Cossack kicker and Mother Russia at her loom, weaving each and every song, each and every arrangement.

Which is all the more remarkable because they are Americans.

But still, the music is big. It’s bold. A little rough around the edges. And through it runs a sincerity, an abandon that sounds very much like joy. And I feel joy, imagining these musicians creating moving Christmas music as if they are shouting lyrics at their mics ten feet away, while they flail at guitars, keyboards, drums, all heavy rock and sweating.

Not tinkly Christmasy, but then, oh, so Christmasy.

I drag the Christmas tree stand in from the garage, clear the corner for the tree. I buy a proper tree skirt because every year I have to listen to another Douglas fir moan and groan about the sheet I wrap around its feet, while I try to convince it the sheet is snow.

Each year I set up my tree and recall the evening I invited my younger brother and sister to help me decorate it after work. I approached the task with great joy, all happy and bright, while they sat on their rumps, eating all my food, entertaining each other with bad jokes and adolescent humor—though they were in their twenties— and neither one touching a single ornament.

It didn’t matter. We remember that night every Christmas and laugh and long for the comfort and joy we felt in each other’s presence then, grown, but not grown, adults being kids, or maybe the other way around, in a little upstairs apartment, windows rattling in the wind.

This long hard season has tried to teach us the joy of little things. We shopped at nurseries and garden centers for seed and mulch, rediscovered our backyards, had time to finally hear the birds that nest in our trees, learn which ones peck the ground for food. We’ve knelt in the dirt, grime under our nails, not cared. We’ve had nowhere to be and no rush to get out of our comfy clothes.

We discovered ZOOM, and loved it, then hated it, then loved it again. We see our families, our book groups, our buddies. Without thinking too hard I count six new friends I’ve made via ZOOM, through classes and seminars. I couldn’t tell you how tall they are, or what they look like in profile, whether their hands are warm or cold, but I could be awakened by a call at 3:00 a.m. and I would know the voice. And this is a joy. And a mercy. And a gift.

We await the joy to the world, but we are most apt to recognize it if we sharpen our senses to the little joys before us. And they are there. Right there. I think I see them. No farther away than my arm is long.


On a hot afternoon in Olomouc, CZ, I was wandering around the city centre, overly warm, and as I passed the doors of St. Moritz Church, I heard strains from its famous organ spilling out onto the sidewalk, inviting me, it seemed, to enter.

I stopped in because of the music, but also because I figured the church—its first iteration dating back to the 15th century—would offer some relief from the heat, with its thick walls and dark interior. And it was cool in there, with only the faintest rays of sunlight making their way through the stained glass windows. It was mostly quiet, punctuated now and then by the organist’s practicing.

I wasn’t alone.

From my place in the back I watched an elderly man with heavy plastic bags of groceries swinging from his wrists enter the nave through a side door. He sat for a moment, then gathered his things, stood to settle the ballast of his bags, and left through the side door opposite the one he came in by. It was as if St. Moritz were a regular stop on his rounds, a throughway, a place to take a breath before home and evening and obligations crowded in on him.

A young mother, much harried, jiggling the stroller to calm a fretful infant, rushed by me, settled on a pew some distance ahead, her hand slowly quieting on the stroller as her child quieted within it. She slumped just a little, a silhouette of care and exhaustion.

Minutes passed, I lost track of time. From the shadows a tear-streaked woman emerged, anguish etched in every angle of her face. Some deep trouble had come to her, and it was unresolved and ongoing. Her despair was raw and exposed. She has risen from the kneeler and walked by me quite quickly, passed by without seeing me, without seeing anyone, so singular was her pain and her purpose for being in this place. Perhaps I should have looked away for decency’s sake, but I did not.

For in that moment—a twinkling, really— I knew I was meant to see her, bear witness, to care for this stranger, and be moved by her and thus connected to her, connected even now, years later as I tell this to you.

I sat for a half hour, maybe more, quietly thinking my own thoughts, taking in seven centuries of incense, of darkness and light, of solace and succor, of confession and forgiveness, of sanctuary and peace. I’ve read that in Great Britain, millennials are returning to church, not always as believers, not always for the formal services of Mass and Easter Vigil.

They fill the pews for events like evensong and often stop by churches and cathedrals for a few minutes during the week to have some place quiet to reflect and still their minds, calm their hearts.

They are coming for peace and quiet, for a place without texts or tweets or a thousand other things that distract and disconnect them. They come because they seek the sacred. Cathedrals are built with just such intention, these great sacred conduits that open up a space for the divine. We feel it, even if we can’t name it, don’t fully understand it.

In such places, tears often come.

It’s unsettling at first, as we feel that tender place within, a big place or a little one, where lurks a question, a grief, some uncertainty or fear. We are in need of some mending. We are missing something, and we think here we might find it.

For that is what hope is, isn’t it? An awaiting, an expectation of some desire to be fulfilled, even if we cannot name it yet, this thing we long for. We hope for resolution, or clarity or rest. In sanctuary is always the hope of deliverance.

In this second week of Advent, we light a candle and look into the flame, we contemplate love and hope, and like our young friends who sit for a while at evensong, we don’t have to know exactly what it all means. We just have to sit still. Crack open our hearts, just a sliver. Breathe.

In the Middle Ages and during wars and social unrest, churches have offered safe haven to those in need of it. Walk through any medieval town or village and notice the prominence of the church. Try the heavy wooden doors. Seek out the heavy door on any place of sanctuary—a church, nature, a friend. Find one open to you.

Go in.

The end and the advent

I write this on the first day of the last month of the end of the decade that is, as you know, a difficult one to name. Wait, you may be thinking. The new decade has already begun, but no, not really. 2020 is the last year of the decade, the tenth year.

There is something about those zeros at the end of any year that makes New Year’s Eve parties lose their minds, and we love those nice round digits, too. They are pretty and festive and so we ring out old decades, old centuries and millennia when we see zeros.

But we have it wrong. It is esthetically pleasing, but still, wrong.

Not that it matters in the larger scheme of things, but this year it seems especially apt that we recognize the ending of something, the awaiting of something else. For once it feels accurate to use the word “everyone” to describe who has been disrupted by the pandemic and who has been aggrieved by it. We can use the word “everyone” to describe who is waiting, please, please, for an end to the fear and uncertainty.

We are waiting, of course, so, too, Canada and Mexico, and so are my friends in the Czech Republic, and also those in small villages in the Carpathians, and those in Asia and Africa and in places we can’t pronounce or locate on a map.

The observance of Advent is not a part of my tradition. I was raised a carol-singing little Baptist, all gussied up in my freshly starched white cape of a choir robe, big red bow at the throat. In Mary Janes and white anklets I sang my heart out at the Christmas program with my brother and other children, equally gussied up and caped.

We heard about crowded inns and shepherds and angels and Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus on Sundays, but during the week we waited for Santa Claus. There was the tree, you see, and it was tall and sparkly and captured most of our attention the month of December. I thought Advent calendars, once I came to know of them, were just the warm-up act for all that loot come Christmas Day, with those little pieces of candy behind each door.

Surely the primary purpose was to mark time and take the edge off until the main event.

But no, that is not the purpose of Advent, as I have come to understand.
Advent is mysterious and purposeful, a time of waiting and preparation and hopeful expectation. An exercise in faith and patience.

I have a small ceramic Advent wreath from Central Europe, a gift from friends, with instructions to weave greenery in and around the four small candle holders. It usually lives in the back of a drawer because while I admire it, I don’t quite know what to do with it. This year, as my friends talk about their Advent lessons, their observances, I have rescued my Advent wreath from its dark corner and have found it a Christmas home.

I started with a devotion that I dutifully read and worked to contemplate upon, but really, nothing. So I went in search of another. And another, until I found a series of daily readings and contemplations that resonated. In these early days of Advent I am working to establish a routine to light the candle, settle down and settle in, and open up to words and prophesies both ancient and new.

We await so much this Christmas season. The dying of the light, and then its return. The end of suffering and fear and sorrow around a virus we cannot see and don’t fully understand. The return of time with loved ones. We await a vaccine. A sense of safety that allows us to touch each other again. We await the ability to make plans, to travel, to get on with our lives.

Perhaps my daily Advent ritual will not measure up to a proper observance of the season. And maybe that is beside the point. My natural inclination is to be cheerful and optimistic, and I am those things. But these require a looking out, a scanning of the horizon and some outward action of good will.

But for now, in these last days of a decade, in this time, in this season of Advent, I will wait and watch as the days shorten, the dark deepens. I will take a slow look inward. I will walk with the mysterious.

A different kind of thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving column is the one I most look forward to writing each year, even though it is often a mashup of previous columns, which makes sense. My memories and expectations of the holiday—my favorite holiday—center on only a few themes, and each year I just wait to see which ones pop up, and I give them space on the page.

My family is still deciding, at this late date, just how Thanksgiving will look. The virus has taken much of the joy out of our normal preparations and anticipations. Which got me thinking of other Thanksgiving memories, ones that rarely see the light of day, crowded out as they are by the more typical memories of home and hearth.

For example, I have been thinking about things like turkeys drawn on construction paper, the size and shape of a child’s outlined hand. My hand. Your hand. Every hand in every classroom from kindergarten through, oh, I don’t know, what? Third grade? Each finger gets crayoned a different color, orange, brown, yellow. Thanksgiving colors, not actual turkey colors.

Add a red wattle, add some stick feet, and your poor mother will be challenged in a couple of hours to slap that supportive and appreciative expression on her face as she sticks it to the fridge like always. Some creative moms might suggest you put it in a drawer to keep it safe so you can present it to grandma when she shows up.

School Thanksgiving plays are some of the least memorable performances ever. Well, the costumes are memorable, but only in their capacity to disappoint. The construction paper pilgrim hats never looked right, didn’t look right even before they started coming undone around the brim, the buckles falling off. Speaking of, those cardboard and tin-foiled buckles fastened to shoes looked stupid, too.

Which is not to say I didn’t covet them.

The more artistic teachers attempted to pleat and fashion a ruff, that accessory so wildly popular in the 1600s, and sometimes they could make it work, and sometimes they could not. The most reliable piece of costuming was the brown construction paper band we wore around our heads with a cut out feather glued to it. But I am not sure this bit of handicraft is permissible these days.

Even so, let us stop and reflect on the hero in so many ways of those first Thanksgivings. But more than just that. He was economic advisor, extension agent, coastline navigator and local expert on just about everything, helping the Pilgrims survive their early years at Plymouth.

Say it with me.


We loved to hear about Squanto, his name alone being fun to say and enough to recommend him. We didn’t get the full story back in 1960, of course, about his abduction to Spain, and how he made his way to England before returning to his homeland. Or if we did, it was glossed over, but we knew he spoke English and was a diplomatic and helpful fellow, highly esteemed and respected, and we loved him those years ago at Longfellow Elementary.

Depending on how heavy a seasoning hand the school lunch ladies had, the annual Thanksgiving lunch was either wonderful or barely tolerable. I always liked the thin slabs of turkey swimming in a thin broth, and I adore dressing. It was always a cornbread-based dressing, which I like very much but have yet to make properly.

At the time I didn’t even know what sage was, but some years the dressing had just a hint of sage, subtle and mysterious. I liked it. Other years it was so overdone the dressing took on a Comet cleanser note, and it was so disappointing I wanted to cry.

But those yeast rolls. Those yeast rolls. I can still smell them, their aroma wafting up from the basement to fill the hallways with a grandmotherly essence, so different from the paste wax, sawdust and green bean smells of normal days. I would give anything to have that recipe. Seriously. If any of you have the Longfellow recipe for yeast rolls, contact me. Sister Schubert does her best, but still, she is no Longfellow lunch room lady.

Some of my best Thanksgivings have started out in unusual ways, away from home perhaps, or small in number, or with unfamiliar food. But regardless, Thanksgiving reminds us and focuses us in ways that other holidays do not. May yours be good this year, even as it is different.

thanksgiving prep — 2020

It’s coming. And here are some Thanksgiving tips that might help you as you prepare for those in your pod, or those you can have over but safely distance from, or just for yourself, as you contemplate cooking for one and eating off your knees in front of a football game.

My sister asked me at what temperature I cook my bird. I told her it depends on how clean my oven is. If it is clean, then I start it off at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Not so clean, I drop that down to 450. So, my first tip for preparation is to clean your oven. I have mine doing its thing right this very minute.

Last year I had the easiest time with Thanksgiving preparations in all the years I have been cooking for my family. I can attribute it to one thing and one thing only. I really organized my kitchen. Cleared the surfaces of all extraneous spices, candles, and geegaws. In my tiny kitchen this is a must. You would think I might have thought of it before, but no. No, I did not.

I have never understood how so many people who love to cook have such tiny and mean-hearted kitchens, and those people who can’t boil water, or won’t, have such magnificent tricked out kitchens in which not to cook. It seems cruel, somehow.

This is the time to get out all your knives and sharpen them. As Julia Child said, or was it Dan Ackroyd playing her, “You can’t do nothing without a sharp knife.” It’s true. Right now all my knives are dull as dirt, but soon I will line them up like little pointy-headed soldiers all ready for battle with carrots, beets, onions and celery. Not to mention carving that bird.

If you are able to be with loved ones surely there are favorite dishes they look forward to. It is the same in my family. But sometimes the chefs just get so tired of making the same things year in, year out. May I venture a word of advice? It is just fine to change up the menu, and to try a new recipe. Your family won’t mind—just as long as the original is on the table, too.

I decided I wanted to make an oyster dressing one year, mostly for my father, because it was what his mother made when he was a child. And I did. But he and my brother, Kevin, who also likes oysters, basically had their own private stock of dressing that year. No way was I springing that on the rest of them without the old standby mounded up in big bowls like always.

My great aunt Georgie spent every Thanksgiving with us and she and my mother both loved creamed onions. Little pearl onions covered in a cream sauce, let’s say a béchamel, yes, that sounds better. For several years after Aunt Georgie died, we dutifully served those onions, and no one touched them. They went straight from the table to the disposal.

We didn’t care. They reminded us of her, all those drives to the country to get her when we were little, her big cat, Susie, her little store and the candy bars she gave us. We needed those onions on that table, right there with us.

When menu planning, then, take care of Aunt Georgie.

As I write this I am aware of all the ways in which this year will be different. How, like everything, it is hard to plan, there is fear and uncertainty in it for many of us. We have lost so much this year, and for some that loss is immeasurable, and we feel it especially at a Thanksgiving table.

Even now, with numbers on the rise what we plan for this time next week might be undone by new orders and our own sense of changing safety needs.

But I am going to have a clean oven, sharp knives, two kinds of dressing. I’ll make that blasted cranberry salad, because, just as I vowed never again because not one of those ingrates deigns to even try it, my niece, Hannah, decided last year it was simply delicious. Oh, yes, it’s perfect on the day and even better on Friday atop a turkey sandwich. So she will have it…even if I have to leave it in some Tupperware for her to snag from the porch.

Ukrainian Forest, with Cuckoo

It was decided we should go to the forest and grill meat. Our social work conference had come to an end earlier in the day and the afternoon was given over to dancing and celebrating and music, as these things do in small Ukrainian villages. “Mama” had a boyfriend who lived on the edge of the forest and she insisted we go. He would start the fire and wait for us.

We loaded the small van with onions, jars of pickles, thick bread and raw sausages, bottles of the local vintage, benches from the small community hall upon which we would sit for our thirty minute ride. First in the van was an electronic keyboard. I know, I didn’t get it, either.

We arrived just as the last vestiges of day fled the skies, the small clearing where Mama’s boyfriend’s cabin stood shrouded in mist and that other, eerie thing you can’t see exactly, but the hair on the back of your neck knows is there. The forest lay just beyond the clearing, deep greens and black, a small fire blazing orange and crackling in the dark, a blue haze around the cabin, Mama’s man standing outside the door and playing the trumpet, something mournful, to greet us.

What transpires next is a bit confused, but the electronic keyboard was set up close to the fire, spirits flowed, meat was grilled, the keyboard player cranked out endless refrains of “Černy Glahse” or something that translates roughly “black eyes.” This is what I was told, or worked out for myself.

We sat in a circle on fallen logs as bottles of spirits and plates of grilled sausages were passed in swift rotation.

It was dark, thank goodness, so I could pass the bottles of sliivoice and wine with barely a sip. More worrisome were the sausages, so I took small pieces of meat, nibbled around on the charred bit, tossing the rest over my shoulder and into the woods, and thus avoided the three-day bout of debilitating food poisoning that brought down my travel mates.

While my friends were busy honing their singing skills and incubating listeria, I closed my eyes and tried to isolate the night sounds that made their way through all the glad revelry. It was in these woods, during a lull, that I heard it. Thought I must have it wrong, listened harder. There it was again.

A cuckoo.
In the forest.
In Ukraine.
With sausages.

It turns out the cuckoo is a horrible creature, kicking eggs out of nests to lay their own, so some other, better mother might hatch them, never suspecting her own babies are somewhere down below, not to be.

Just then, though, I didn’t know this about the cuckoo, and the cuckoo’s call at evenfall was mysterious and mythical and somehow made sense of the events unfolding around me and explained my presence there, too. This bird in a tree helped me feel grounded and present–and amused and filled with love for the forest, that bird and my sweet companions.

It was earlier this summer when I was awakened, every morning at 4:30 a.m., by a cuckoo, or a bird sounding very much like one. This went on for weeks, disrupting my sleep and puzzling me. The voice was similar to the mourning dove, that odd, mechanical and hollow hoot of summer mornings. But it wasn’t a mourning dove.

A friend asked what the bird looked like, and it never occurred to me I might see it in a tree, attach the call to a particular bird. I did some research, and we do have cuckoos in North America, but their call is different from their European cousins. I studied the plumage, vowed to get up early the next morning and go outside, see this bird.

The next morning 4:30 came and went and no cuckoo’s call. Nor the next morning, nor the next.

A younger version of myself might haven been bothered by this, strident to prove to others and herself, she really did hear a cuckoo, bringing it up in conversations no one could possibly care about, just to prove herself right. That old insistence to be taken seriously.

I don’t care quite so much about that anymore. But I wonder. Was it a sign, a gift, a secret message for me to decode? So much to put on a thing so fleeting and flimsy as a bird’s call. Or maybe, it was just this. A memory of the forest, and faces lit up by fire and drink and friendship, all smiling, all singing, all together. And somewhere an electric keyboard, and somewhere, a cuckoo.