It’s the kids’ Spring Break and I am currently sitting on an airplane with Boston and Greyson and we are headed to Paris. Not Paris, TX the REAL Paris! Even with all of the traveling we have done visiting friends since Troy died, this trip by far gets the prize for being the biggest. We are going to visit the Woodcock Family, dear friends we were stationed with in Italy.
Troy, the kids and I arrived in Aviano, Italy just a month or so before they did. We knew we would be in the same squadron and so invited them over for dinner right away. And the rest is history. I don’t remember what we cooked that night but I remember the fellowship being delicious. We spent quite a bit of time with their family. And the kids and I have seen them twice since Troy died. We all still talk of cherished memories of the fun and food we shared during our one tour together. Now, the boys are older and I hope they can enjoy and appreciate the specialness of this grand vacation, good friends and hopefully even another culture’s food.
Jim comes from a cooking family. He often makes his Italian grandfather’s pasta sauce and it is yummy! Jim grew up with seven brothers and sisters and his dad was in the military so you know his mom cooked A LOT! I, on the other hand, grew up with one brother and a mother who prefers to wash and wax her car over preparing an evening meal. My mom, affectionately known as Juju, is such an amazing mother with all kinds of gifts and talents. Cooking, bless her heart (Southerners understand that phrase), is just not one of them. She hung a sign in her kitchen that read, “If it ain’t burned, momma didn’t cook it”. She wasn’t kidding. That’s the gospel right there. I couldn’t count the number of times my mom burned toast, rolls or even dinner itself. She loathes going to the grocery store and meal planning and rarely ever had half the ingredients she needed to make anything. I would ask for something like chicken and rice and she would say okay only to realize she had no chicken or rice, only the Cream of Mushroom soup. (That is a staple, you know). I remember her starting a grease fire that burned the ceiling of our kitchen black. Once, when I was about 7 or 8 I awoke on a Saturday morning to a smell that literally made me nauseated and burned the inside of nostrils to the point I wondered if a doctor’s visit would be necessary. The really funny part was the night before I had sneaked into the living room to watch the television show, “Bewitched”, which was 100% banned in my home due to my Southern Baptist roots and the program’s glorification of witchcraft. In retrospect it actually seemed like Samatha’s space-cadet husband and overbearing mother were more of the issue but I do respect my folk’s intentions. Anyway, when I awoke the following morning to that powerful pungent aroma of unidentifiable burned meat I thought I was being punished by God for the sin of forbidden tv watching. Hmmm… Maybe I was? Well, I asked God for forgiveness and my mom never made that dish again. Maybe she was cleaning the oven? Sometimes it was hard to tell. Okay, enough of my mom’s cooking stories. You KNOW I love you Mom!
My mom’s mother was a fantastic cook and gardener. She made everything from scratch with fresh ingredients. I still can taste her black-eyed peas and okra, potato rolls and homemade peach ice-cream. I think she inspired in me the desire to cook and to understand food. Marrying Troy, who had already lived around the world, helped me to appreciate different foods. I was always fascinated by foreign foods. I grew up in a small town in New Mexico and though I still think I ate some of the best Mexican food on the planet, I had never even heard of sushi or schnitzel. While I am telling all of my childhood secrets I might as well go ahead and confess that I had a slight obsession with Princess Diana and therefore all things Anglophile. My fascination and relationship with her (okay it’s only an imagined one) would be the topic of an entirely another blog so I will leave it with that. One quirky thing I remember doing, however, was I would beg my mom to buy me these chocolate-covered thin mints called “After Eight Mints”. They were made in England and at the age of 12 I considered them to be a delicacy from a far-off land, even though I am pretty sure she bought them at Walgreens. I would hide them under my bed so no one else would eat them and only pull them out for the moments I would savor the pages of my Princess Diana picture books. Okay, it’s strange, I confess. But it was my escape and way to explore culinary culture.
After I married Troy, I realized he not only appreciated all the Tex-Mex I had grown up eating but also had eaten a myriad of other mysterious and fun foods. Which brings me back to the schnitzel. Troy’s family was stationed in Germany and this was their favorite dish. It greatly resembles chicken-fried steak, which is why I think they all liked it so much. But it was smothered in this yummy brown mushroom gravy and he got me hooked onto it as well. If there was a German restaurant anywhere near, it was what he ordered. Eventually he perfected cooking it AND chicken fried steak, too. Troy didn’t do a lot of the cooking but like most everything else in his life, if he attempted it he was successful.
Moving around in the Air Force and being exposed to many different types of cooking. If we ate out or at someone’s house I always asked questions and was interested in how their dishes were made. I won’t say I am a great cook but I continue to learn and experiment and will enjoy my children being done with their picky-eater phases so I can get back to cooking something gourmet-ish again.
Jim and Andrea liked to cook together. With only two kids they had a little more time to devote to the art of it. And I know Andrea was a very good cook. Last week was Anthony’s birthday so we began pouring over Andrea’s recipe books to find the one of the cake that she made for him every year. As we all sat at our dining room table and began thumbing through her life’s recipes, I felt as if I was catching a glimpse of her private life. All women know their recipe file truly represents who they are, who they know, where they’ve been and what they likes. It made me feel as if I spent a little time with Andrea in her kitchen, maybe sharing a cup of tea and swapping recipes. Many were handed down from her mother or her Air Force friends. Many more were penned in her own hand and lovingly worn thin. I know it was a tender and sad moment for Jim and Anthony. And then Jim found a neatly folded email he had written to her on their 20th wedding anniversary. He was TDY and it was all they had that special day. He read it and I know it brought back memories of that time of their life. Bittersweet chocolate of moments these are.
Oddly enough, right after Jim and I got married and I was unpacking boxes full of my cookbooks and recipe files, I found a card Troy had sent to me from Iraq just a month before he died, in between the pages. I wondered how it ended up there because I don’t think I cooked real homemade food one time after he died. Like Jim’s to Andrea, it was penned with love and encouragement during a military separation. Like Jim’s, it was written for my eyes and my heart alone. Yet, there they both ended up in the privately public forum of each other’s recipe books.
I think I could eventually master an Iron Chef America recipe given a couple of tries, the correct ingredients and the right cooking equipment. But life, this messy life that boils over the pot, burns to the bottom of the pan and often is so bitter to swallow… is much more difficult to master. When my personal life turned into a disaster I remember crying out “What do I do now?! Will someone just tell me what on the earth do I do now?! How can I remedy this? Can life ever possibly taste good again?!” No one could give me the answer. Because the answer can come from no man. Only God has the perfect recipe for life.
You know when you eat something really delicious and then you find out what’s in it and you know you never would have even tried it much less liked it had you known what went into it? Or you wouldn’t possibly have attempted this or that recipe if you had been thumbing through the cookbook because the ingredients sounded too strange or untasty or just too darn complicated? Well, that’s life. One part joy. Two parts pain. Three parts fulfillment. Four parts suffering.
If you wrote out my life, all that’s gone into it these past two and a half years, I never would have signed up to attempt THAT recipe. It would’ve been just too daunting and too unimaginabley awful-tasting to even think about. Waking up one day with my five little bitty children at my feet to find out from a knock on the door that I was a 36 year old widow? No thank you, I won’t be having any of that. Not to mention, once all those ingredients; grief, anger, loneliness, cups of tears, etc…were mixed in then it would all have to go through the fire, the burning hot fire, to eventually come out being good or at best, palatable.
Many of our lives end up that way. Andrea and Jim’s with the monstrosity of a long-term battle with cancer. Mine with the aftermath of a fatal 2- second plane crash. None of the four of us ever feeling our feet to the fire or our faith put to the test like we had planned when we wrote our own recipes of life as right-of-college-happy-in-love-newlyweds. And to the unbelieving man without God’s hope of giving a purpose to the bitter ingredients and seemingly spoiled dish, it seems impossible. It WAS impossible. The only way it HAS been possible was with God being the head chef. We can dabble in the control of the input of materials we put into our lives, attempting to create some sort of masterpiece of our own. The Ravellas and the Gilberts were right there doing just that. Happy, Christian, military families, raising kids, serving God and country, yet, about to be blindsided by an unexpected ingredient that would spoil the whole dish - death. And I can tell you, even with Jim and I having one another and a complete family again, without the Lord, the dish would still be spoiled. Because the grave would have been the end for us.
Jim and I daily stand in the middle of a miracle of love and hope and healing. But we can both honestly admit that without God’s help DAILY with the pain and with the struggles, we would be consumed. There would be no victory only momentary flickers of relief. Without the promise that even through the worst heartache imaginable and the most desperate of times there is a reason and there will be good. Or that even the best this life has to offer, it is still a only mere shadow of the greatness that is to come when we are finally Home. There is a song echoing in my head right now… the lyrics going something like this:
“There will come a day, with no more tears, no more pain and no more fears. There will come a day when the burdens of this place will forever be erased, when we see Jesus face to face.”
We won’t find the perfect recipe for life on this earth. Even with healthy wives or husbands at home. Nothing will ever taste the way it should, until we meet Jesus, THE secret ingredient – THE one part joy. The rest of the ingredients just won’t matter after that, will they?