Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Nod To The Sargent Major

Yesterday was my friend Joe's birthday.  He went home about 10 years ago and I was glad for him as it was a long transition to get there.  He was a character.  He was a whole bunch of characters.  You see, Joe was a reinactor.  He liked to play Civil War on the weekends.  He liked to play mountain man all the time.  He liked to be the Sheriff in the Outlaw Guns Shows - a wild west show that did local fairs.  Joe liked to play.  One day he showed up at my house in overalls and proclaimed that he was wearing a new pair of "Farmer Olys".  He used to tease my then teenage daughter that he was going to show up at her slumber party in his red union suit with his ear trumpet and sleeping bag....  When ever I saw him - I was never sure exactly who was going to show up.

He was a kick in the ass.  He put up a scaffold with a hanged dummy in his yard during hunting season to keep the hunters off his place.  You see, he loved animals.  In fact he loved them way too much.  A billy goat in the living room to keep it warm - a horse that rang the doorbell and lots of other critters.  On the second time I ever met him at our local Elk Days fair - he took me aside by the dunk tank and asked me to be his wife's friend.  She had just opened a high end yarn shop down on the highway and was very discouraged.  I told him I would.  Kricket and I have been sisters ever since.

I wrote this piece for our local paper while he was making his way out the door and towards home.  I wanted to share it here to honor him.

Making Carrot Cake

                                                                                                            By Sheri Chin

            I am learning about life and death in a very graphic way.  So many people wander through their lives with a lot of questions and no real answers.  You see, we look for something hidden, some obscure event that will all of a sudden make everything clear.  But the answers are here, right in our faces, in the things we do everyday and take for granted.  They are no more hidden than the sun behind a cloud or a plant beneath the soil in early spring.  The answers to our fears about the big questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “Why do people die?”  They are all there, but we are trying so hard to make sense out of what we believe has no logic, that we miss it’s simplicity.
            My friend, Joe is dying.  He is laying in an ICU room in a hospital.  His body is betraying him by not working anymore.  He is making the passage - partly here and partly on the path through the tunnel.  There is no real dignity in the process, but it has it’s significance just the same.  You see, we go out as we came in, helpless, unable to do for ourselves, unable to control our bodily functions.
            Those of us who are watching someone we care about going through the process are horrified at the indignity of it all.  We know that someday, at some time, (we don’t know when) we will be there too.  The idea of helplessness and lack of self control scares us.  Oh, no not me.  I will just have the big one and it will be over....perhaps.   I hope it will be that way for me or anyone else that I love.  But most of us go out the way we came in.  You see, you have to be as a child to get into the kingdom of heaven.  I have it on the best authority.
            I am baking Carrot Cake in honor of my friend, Joe.  It is one of his favorites.  He has diabetes and hasn’t been able to indulge himself with it for a long time.  Now, he can’t eat anything at all, not even Carrot Cake.  But I am making it anyway.  In honor of the compliment he paid me every time he ate Carrot Cake at a restaurant and told the waitress that it wasn’t Carrot Cake at all because it doesn’t taste anything like Sheri’s Carrot Cake, which he thought was the best he’d ever had.
            I dump the sugar in the bowl.  I look at the sugar, let it’s crystals filter through my fingers, and see the whiteness and sparkle.  Next, I add the corn oil.  The pale yellow, slightly thick, liquid covers the surface of the crystalline white making it look smokey.  I take up my wooden spoon.  I feel the surface of the spoon.  It is my bread dough spoon that one of my friends made for me.  The wood is slightly rough after being washed so many times and the handle is squared instead of round like commercially made wooden spoons.  I plunge the spoon into the oil and start to blend the sugar and oil.  It changes.  It becomes a pale yellow, thick, slightly clear mixture.  It reminds me of frozen lemonade when you dump it in a pitcher.
            I have had a busy day, so I have to wash the eggs before I can use them.  They are sitting in the chipped blue egg basket next to the sink.  The basket my father used to collect the eggs from their chickens.  The handle has long since broken off.  It still holds the eggs just fine.  No need for a new basket.  The eggs are real dirty.  The chickens are running loose now and you never know just where you will find the eggs when you look.  I take them up, one at a time and hold them under the slightly warm tap water and gently wash the muck off the shells.  Some are smooth.  Some are slightly rough, feeling like they have been sanded.  One is ruffled, like the chicken struggled to lay it.  Poor chicken, I think as I rub the shell.  Remembering the birthing process myself, I can sympathize with her struggle over that one.  One, two, three, four, I break the eggs into the lemonade colored mixture.  They sit on the surface like four suns, gleaming and shiny.
            I plunge my spoon into the mixture and beat it deftly into something new.  It now looks like the lemon curd that I used to make for the lemon meringue pies that were one of my dad’s favorites.  I haven’t made a lemon meringue pie for a long time.  It was just that color and that texture, I am certain.  I remember.
            Next I add the flour.  It’s not just any old grocery store flour.  It’s special unbleached bakers flour.  It’s the only flour that makes my bread taste right.  It’s not made from your run-of-the-mill soft wheat.  It’s made out of Montana hard red wheat.  When you buy that bag of flour, it has a lot of history.  Joe likes history.  He is a living history buff.  He is more at home in the Civil War or the Old West than he is in this place and time.  I measure the salt in the palm of my hand and fling it into the bowl.  Joe always got a kick out of watching me measure with my hand.  My father taught me to measure that way when I was a little girl.  I taught my daughter to measure that way too.  Continuity.  Less dishes to wash.
            Now I measure the cinnamon into the dry pile that is growing on the “lemon curd” mixture.  No spoons required.  I know how brown the mountain should become.  A little soda and the spoon does it’s work.  The lemon curd turns into a light brown speckled mix like thin mud.  I always liked to play in the mud.  Mud pies.  Mud cakes.  Mud in the flowerbeds or the vegetable rows.  Mud, mud glorious mud.  Joe likes to play even though he isn’t young.  I can see him sitting on the floor with my son building a Lincoln log town.  Not just any town.  A stockade.  A place to defend the women and children as a good Sargent-major should.
            Now comes the good part.  I add the grated carrots and the chopped nuts and the crushed pineapple.  As I stir, the mixture foams up and gets good and bubbly as the acid from the pineapple blends with the baking soda.  It smells sweet.  It smells like cinnamon.  It smells like home.  Joe is getting ready to go home.
            I pour the mess into the greased pan and put it in the oven.  I can smell it baking all over the house as it starts to cook.  This is the most fattening of American desserts.  I really don’t need the calories.  But I will eat it and enjoy every bite right down to the thick cream cheese frosting.  Here Joe.  When you get home you can eat all you want and won’t have to worry about those damn shots anymore.  No more strips and pokes.  No more pills.  Nothing but sweet carrot cake or cocoanut cream pie.
            I am sad tonight.  I am sad that he is still working on that struggle toward the door.  It brings back all the pain and horror I felt walking my own parents through that door.  But they are there now.  There is only peace.  It is just a shadow.  One I will face myself someday.  I am not afraid.  You see, there are so many waiting for me there.  When I get there the blue basket will have it’s handle.  The Sargent-major will be drunk on his ass , telling wild tales and I will laugh.  I will get to play in the mud.  You see, to get in you have to be as a child.  I have it on the best authority.

Joe's bear and wizard in my kitchen window

   Happy Birthday Joe - I miss you you old goat!        

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