My sister and my Someone and I were singing three part harmony to Blessed Assurance only halfway through a bottle of wine this week.
This is not normal.
I sing for a living, but I’ve never sung with my sister. Even growing up, she remained tight lipped and glaring from the church balcony while I belted it out next to my parents in the fifth row from the front of the stage. I dutifully held my red hymnal and mimicked my mother’s loud alto that could be heard over nearly everyone else, barring Margaret Morris’ wide vibrato-ed, crisp soprano on the other side of the aisle.
Last Christmas break, I played a game with my sister called “Sing It When You Know It,” in which I would start a deep cut Sunday School Song and she would have to chime in when she recognized it. She never let me down. Even when Ananias and Sapphira got together to conspire-a plot *clap clap* to cheat *clap clap* the church to get ahead…
My Someone would sit open jawed and wide eyed at our infallible recollection, our enthusiasm, and the horrific lyrics.
They knew God’s power but did not fear, they tried to cheat the Holy Spirit, Peter prophesied it and they both dropped dead! *Oof*
The “oof” is when you make fists and simultaneously cram both of your elbows into your rib cage. It’s sort of like a celebration of Peter dropping those two people dead, while also showing how the Holy Spirit might sucker punch you right in the ribs for your cheating ways. My sister and my’s simultaneous “oof” was enough for my Someone to shake his head and slide his chair back from the table with his hands up. The song finishes up spouting how God loves a cheerful giver. It’s a lot to take in.
But this year is different.
Maybe we aren’t interested in the shock value anymore. Or maybe we are accepting it. But as the three of us broke into the triumphant chorus of Blessed Assurance this week, it felt less like an outsider looking back in, and more like an insider taking what is ours back out.
This is my story, this is my song…
For this reason, I am eating more pastries.
It started in the summer of last year, as we were winding down our time in Eastern Michigan and doubling back to Ohio again. We had a pocket full of cash and a tank full of gas, and were feeling like maybe with a little more luck and another generous audience, we could be ahead. And so we stopped to deposit our cash and ended up next to a gluten free bakery in the same lot.
“Things really are turning our way!” we said, and went in to load up on a loaf of bread, an apple crumb cake, and two cookies for celebration. On our way out, I was confronted with a freezer full of vegan gluten-free pierogies.
I hesitated. Pierogies were for special occasions. Pierogies were for the end of cold days, usually in February, when my mother wakes up early and works on them in a small Western Pennsylvania kitchen. For being from a depressed old steel town of mostly European descent, where living generations can still identify the Polish part of town from the Italian part of town, where the Germans would hang out as opposed to the Irish, the ethnic boundaries of my culinary upbringing were a bit blurry– one rich in potato salads and pasta and French Fries on salads– a confusing configuration of carbs and meat and sauerkraut and Ranch dressing. And two or three times a year, pierogies.
My mother would make the dough from scratch, rolling it out to fill with boiled, mashed potatoes and cheese, potatoes and bacon, potatoes and onion, and pressing the edges firming before tossing them in a big salted pot of boiling water. Then she fretted over the pot as they broke or held, removing them with a slotted spoon and tossing them with onions and butter before presenting them ceremoniously at our small kitchen table where the six of us crammed in our designated seats. Then, I was chastised for breaking them open and sucking the mashed potatoes clean out before eating the thick dumpling outside.
All this while standing in front of a freezer case of pre-made pierogies in Eastern Michigan.
“Let’s get them,” I said, pulling a bag and taking it to the register.
That night, somewhere in an Ohio rest area, I ripped open the bag and placed them in a pan of coconut oil and onions, humming to try and keep thoughts of my mother out. My mother, who stopped calling me, who I missed more profoundly than if she’d died, who I’d be facing in a couple of short weeks to tell her that I love her and that I miss her and want us to be better. I hummed louder. Then I was singing.
Come home, come home– ye who are weary come home.
I stopped. I was weary. But I couldn’t figure out where home was. I was tired of believing that I had no home, that I had no right to the inheritance of memory that my other, more dutiful siblings who’d stayed in Western Pennsylvania, had. I didn’t need to reject my history to not repeat it. I’d already tried that, and it only left me sad and a little hungry. Just like I’d been taught– whether by God or my Mother or pasta– I needed to embrace it. To be all in. Whole. Even if, when it boils down, a few tender pieces break apart.
Softly and tenderly, pierogies were frying. And all at once, I was home. Not in my mother’s kitchen, but my own. I was allowed to love potato-filled pasta as much as anyone, and I was allowed to love it with no strings attached. And I was allowed to love it anywhere. Just as I loved the hymn that was falling from me– the melody buttery lilty and welcoming– without the shame of coming forward to the altar. My altar was here: an old hymn and a plate full of pierogies across from the one who loves me unconditionally.
“These are kind of amazing,” my Someone said.
“You would’ve been so lucky to have them like I did as a kid,” I said. “It’s like some kind of Holy.” Then I told him about my mother, then about the people who dressed up like different pierogies during the Pittsburgh Pirates games’ 7th Inning Stretch and raced, everyone placing bets on which pierogi would win. And as he laughed, it was some kind of Holy, too. Like coming home. No strings attached.
It’s been over 7 months since my mother has called me. I’m not waiting for her call, anymore. Instead, I am taking a Pilgrimage of Pastries. In Lincoln, Nebraska, I hunted down a cinnamon roll that tasted like the ones she makes every Christmas morning– and once a month in addition. More caramely than gritty, more doughy than toasted, where the outsides are downright chewy with brown sugar. I ate it slowly, with reverence, and also playfully, with delight as I remembered cramming them into napkins and sneaking them into my room, burning my mouth on the center from eating them too quickly for fear of being found out. And I gave thanks for my mother. I let the anger creep into my throat as far as it wanted, and when it was through, I soothed it down with a sip of coffee and another bite.
At my friend Kelsey’s house a month later, I missed my mother again. And so I scavenged my cupboard for a flour mix and a crown of broccoli, then spent the morning preparing a crumbling version of my mother’s veggie roll, an original concoction she’d based on our favorite local pizza place’s ranch-and-cheddar based pizza. I didn’t have a recipe, just a feeling. I prepared it with a gentleness I don’t always possess, removing the giant roll like those patient actors always do in Duncan Hines commercials, letting the heat of the oven briefly close my eyes and smelling the bread deeply, as if being transported to their childhood kitchen. But I didn’t go anywhere. Instead, I stayed completely present in this state of home, being thankful for a mother who taught me to bake, and to cook intuitively. And as I cut into it, the cheesey broccoli falling through the cracks of the swirled inside, and served it to one of my best friends and my Someone, I was satisfied with having done it out here on my own. I waited for the anger, but it didn’t come. Not even at the last bite, polishing it off within 24 hours.
Maybe this is a sign of forgiveness– these holy cinnamon rolls and half bottles of wine. Or maybe it’s a sign of being tired of being tired. Last year, in a game of “Sing it When You Know It,” we uncovered this gem–
One Door and only One,
And yet its sides are two–
I’m on the inside,
On which side are you?
Sitting in the Florida kitchen this year with my Atheist sister and my Agnostic Someone, prodigal me wasn’t so sure, anymore. It seemed that where three or more were gathered, there wasn’t a door at all. Just a wide open space where anyone who wanted to join in, can. Sing it if you know it. No guilt. No strings attached.
I feel blessed assured of it.