upon turning 32

I turned 32 last week. On my actual birthday, I taught two classes and held office hours before heading back to Champaign for a middle school volleyball game and dinner with friends; M had to work. It was a low-key kind of day, with a lot of lovely phone calls, messages and FB birthday wishes. I appreciate them all.

I was walking across campus after classes and I felt so content that I didn't even complain about the cold. Class had gone particularly well and was reminding me of all the amazing parts of what I do. For the first time in a while, I felt the moment move around me. I felt calm and happy and exactly where I was supposed to be.

Later, one of my students asked me if I freaked out about getting older the way "they" always show in the movies. (I'm sure to her, 32, seems old and something to freak out about). I responded by saying I was happy to turn 32 and as I said it I realized how true it was. I like even numbers so 31 seemed kind of lame. I like 32. It's the freezing point of water; the amount of completed, numbered piano sonatas by Beethevon and is considered a happy number.

This week has been busy with job candidates in and meetings on top of classes. It's been a challenging week but for me, it has also been a mindful one. I'm trying very hard not to think only in "to-do" lists but to concentrate on a few things at a time so that those things get all of my energy. This is not easy, especially for me who's used to multi-tasking to the point of ridiculousness. I've been inspired, though, by my colleagues and some of the candidates' presentations. It's been a week of the universe reminding me of many things. During a writing prompt in one of my classes I wrote the following line and then continued the story below:

Between my grandparents' kitchen and the garage I came of age, steeped in fierce independence and longing.

My grandmother's small kitchen, the one of my father's boyhood, contained all the secrets of the women in my family. It is where they sat to deliver bad news, perhaps because the brandy was close by on a shelf. Grandmother would stand on a chair, grab the glasses and the liquor, dust them off, pour and listen. I watched this ritual throughout my childhood, not because there was a lot of bad news in our family, but because my grandmother was someone in whom everyone confided. Everything happened in the kitchen. My grandmother washed my hair in the kitchen sink with shampoo that smelled like apricots. What grew between us, her hands in my hair, my eyes squeezed tight, was like magic, an intimacy for which I longed in my teenage life. I never fulyl understood the pull of that tiny kitchen. How when I think of my childhood, I come back there and not just to that kitchen but all the kitchens of my young life: my two great-grandmothers' kitchens, the kitchen in the first house I remember clearly, and the kitchen of my young adult life, another kitchen I shared with my grandmother. It was in the kitchen where I first heard someone swear while peeling potatoes. I sat among the women as they shelled peas and peeled shrimp; stirred rue for gumbo, traded recipes and told stories. Men moved in and out of the kitchen, smelling and tasting whatever was in the pot, getting ice for their drinks, and more importantly, eavesdropping. It was in the kitchen I learned how to go off script, to add and subtract ingredients by taste or season. No woman in my family has ever followed a recipe as it's written.I have my great-grandmother's recipes with lines through them, her handwritten notes including the various occasions where the dish was served. These recipes are lessons in editing and revision. They're about finding one's own way. These are my great-grandmother's stories. When I read them, I feel like I'm being let in on her secrets, only I can't always understand them. There are too many contexts missing. Yet, I am convinced that one day they will speak to me. I cling to her memories as they intertwine with my own. I hear her voice as I fill muffin tins with batter and I am careful not to overfill each cup. I think of all the times I stood in her kitchen, listening in. It was in the middle of the women in my family, surrounded by smells of cornbread baking, I learned to tell a joke and most significantly, to tell stories.

I call my grandmother and she asks about the weather in Illinois. I have broken her heart by leaving the South, but she attempts to understand by discussing soup recipes; she has sent two different kinds to me in the mail. "One is more of a stew. You'll like it," she assures me. "I hope you can find some of the spices, though. I don't know what kind of stores you have up north." To my family, anything above Tennessee is North. Gran talks about her flowers. She lost some in the recent freeze. She talks about plants using names that almost sound like another language, a familiar tongue of rhododendron, hydrangea, dahlia, gladiolas. I'm not sure which flora she speaks of now, only that she thinks they are too fragile. Though she doesn't say it, I think she is suggesting that she worries about me in the same way. I have learned, I tell her, to adapt. I talk about the shoe treads I bought last year, the various scarves and down vests I own. She tells me a story about my grandfather and a mishap trip to Alaska. She pauses in her own memory. I let the silence lay between us.

In my recollections, it seems my grandfather is two different people. My grandfather worked on old cars, lawn mower motors, whatever he could get his hands on. If he didn't have a garage, he worked in the yard or small lean-to which provided shelter. "There are so many things to fix," he'd say and turn up the radio which played the kind of music where words were not needed. I spent hours holding a flashlight for him. He taught me to change an alternator and replace spark plugs. I began to love the feel of dirt on my hands, beneath my nails. I loved the t-shirts ripped as rags on which my grandfather would periodically wipe his forehead. As if tuned to an internal clock, he'd say, "Time to wash up" moments before someone, my little brother, my mother or great-grandmother would tell us supper was about ready. I watched as the soap turned dark, running over his hands pooling in the bottom of the sink before running down the drain. In the kitchen, my grandmother held court and sent us both back out to the washroom, our hands not yet free of the grime. I giggled as though we shared a common secret, hidden in the dirt.

I was fascinated by my grandfather and, like my father, I loved him intensely. I was an affectionate child and remember both my brother and I snuggling into my grandfather's lap to watch football games or movies. We loved to help him take off his boots, the only shoes I remember him wearing in my childhood. Matt and I would each grab a boot and pull, laughing uncontrollably when we fell backwards without a boot in hand. Granddaddy would smile and help us up to do it all over again. As we got older, my grandfather seemed to grow more serious and I learned that sometimes you love from a distance.

My brother who is a mechanical engineer, got the tinkering from Grandaddy and is at times, just as serious and distant as he became, as our father is, as I can be. I see so much of my grandfather in the two men of my life. Given their choice of professions as well as my own, I see now that "there's so much to fix," is a thread that runs through us all.