Keep Calm and Carry On: The Tradition of Sunday Suppers

Earlier this week, as I gathered my usual groceries, I had comfort foods in mind. I knew that we would be home for the weekend due to Coronavirus and possibly longer, depending on if my husband’s work unit asked his team to teleconference or not, and we’ve been experiencing sunny, but cold days. These things, as well as the fact that I’ve been re-reading Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, inspired me to bring home ingredients for a roast chicken with vegetables, cabbage and leeks for a St. Patrick’s Day meal, and enough other random produce to create any soup—carrots, celery, and onions will take you a long way to dinner!

The chicken and veggies, ready to go into the oven.

Sunday morning after breakfast, my husband and I sit in the living room with our coffee. We watch the cats wrestle in the sunbeams on the carpet. We chat about future plans, current family events, and what we want to plant in our garden this summer. As the coffee cools and the day really begins, he asks me what I want to do today…and the answer is pretty much my standard reply. I love to cook on Sundays, when the lazy hours stretch before me in uninterrupted potential. I gather my supplies and let my mind fly. 

Usually, I’ll listen to NPR, but the usual Sunday program didn’t fit my mood today, so instead I put in a Loreena McKinnett CD, “the book of secrets”, and begin on my chicken. 

As I cut vegetables and apply the rub to the chicken, my mind wanders to my great-grandmother. Whenever I cook chickens on Sunday, I think of the stories my mom tells of the days of her childhood when her parents sent her and her two sisters to live for the summers with her grandmother in the mountains of West Virginia.

My great grandmother, Glennis Carter, lived in a mountain community so small that you didn’t bother with a house address when you sent her letters. She married young, and she and her husband were expecting their third daughter (my grandmother) when he was killed at 25 years old in a mining accident. Glennis never remarried, and raised her daughters alone while running a general store. Her life was hard and she struggled. But she also found joy. Every Sunday, she killed a chicken and the town gathered at her house for dinner. She was renowned for her cooking. Even when I was a child, when we went to visit, she still baked little individual pies for each of us—she knew each of our favorites. 

My great-grandmother with almost all of her siblings: Nellie Reed, Glennis Carter, Hallie Lambert, Gene Hardway, Carol Hardway, Irene Lambert, Brooks Hardway (Not pictured Casto “Doc” Hardway)

I learned to cook by watching my mom, and she often shared stories of Grandma Carter on those occasions. They were her happiest memories of childhood, and I know that I was influenced by their simplicity: stories of swimming holes where kids swam with cattle on hot summer days; the one room school house that was open in the summer; my mom meeting her grandma after school to have a NeHi and a MoonPie on the front porch of the general store. Stories of my great-uncle Brooks, who went to the war and returned “shell-shocked”, became a hermit further up the mountain, and spent his days writing poetry. Stories of outhouse runs in the middle of the night. 

These stories often remind me that much can be made with very little. Grandma Carter made abundance from whatever resources she had on hand. Brooks only came down from his cabin once or twice a year for supplies. People grew gardens and shared their bounty.

I chop carrots, and peel potatoes. I slice onions—tears pouring down my face, sensitive not only to their aroma but to the feelings bubbling up inside as I think about how much I have, of all the abundance that surrounds me everyday. 

I don’t need to, but I start a pot of water boiling on the stove. I throw in the scraps of vegetables and spices that I’d normally throw away. The tops and ends of carrots and celery, a partial lemon, the potato peels, smaller stems of thyme and rosemary. A bay leaf and a knob of ginger. And, made from what we now could consider garbage because we are so bountifully blessed with grocery stores and restaurants, fridges and freezers overflowing, is a fragrant vegetable broth that I can use as a base for a more elaborate soup, or eat as it is. 

My kitchen is filled with the smells of roasting chicken and bubbling broth. The CD begins to play a Scottish ballad, “The Highwayman”, bringing back memories of my own country childhood with my sisters, playing Anne of Green Gables. The sun shines through the windows, and the birds and groundhogs dance through the backyard on various missions of their own.

And I know, no matter what our future holds, there will always be Sunday supper, as long as we are able to look around us and find—then share—the bounty in what we have.  

Roast chicken and vegetables.

February: Closet safaris and the unexplainable nature of grief

I am standing in front of my closet, trying to figure out what to wear to my father-in-law’s funeral. Over the next few days, on top of a writing project that I need to complete, I will now be traveling to Illinois to meet with family and begin the process of wrapping up his life, and all I can think about is how disorganized the closet is.

I pack two dresses, and an assortment of casual clothing to manage the ever-changing weather (we will arrive in Illinois to 0° temperatures, but by the day of the funeral, it will be in the mid-30’s, and I will drive home without a coat on a sunny 50° day). I throw in jewelry and makeup, a hairdryer, toiletries, and a few pairs of shoes. I grab my work bag and throw in the laptop—mid-project, the writing will just have to wait. I fill my purse with tissues and chocolate because these are the things I’ve come to realize are a necessity at all funerals. At the last minute, I throw together a tote bag of things I think I might need. I take one last look at the closet, close the doors, and meet my husband at the car.

On the road, we look at each other in that first moment you have after the whirlwind of activity when news like this sends you flying out the door, realizing that our Florida vacation isn’t going to happen.

I look out the window at waves of brown empty fields, at shivering naked trees, at the steel grey sky. I look at my husband again. Are you okay?

“I’m fine,” he says, good midwestern stoicism masking his face. “I just need to get things squared away, get the funeral arranged, and start dealing with the estate.”

I know what he’s really saying is that he’ll have time to grieve and process later. I also know he handles grief in ways that I don’t understand. We are opposites when it comes to working through emotions. After 10 years of marriage, I know to give him space.

In Illinois, we stay at an aunt’s house, in his grandparents’ master bedroom. The quiet room is a time capsule of my husband’s family. Pictures of the boys in 1980’s turtlenecks and plaid jackets, a rotary dial telephone next to his grandmother’s address book, a powder puff next to a dish of vintage watches. His grandfather’s golfing trophies. And the closets.

Five closets in this room, filled with the wardrobe of a woman with incredible taste and a comfortable life that afforded her time and money to shop. I marvel at the blues, reds, and greens and imagine what she must have looked like at my age, in a suit with a soft blouse, coiffed red hair, and a beautiful scarf.

A couple of days later I sit down to write. My project isn’t finished, and I know I need to get to work. But, I’m stuck. I can’t write a single word. After 5 minutes, I put the computer away. My feelings are raw, and I can’t explain what I’m going through. I look at the closets, and for the first time in all the years I’ve visited this house, I feel overwhelmed looking at the cozy space filled with memories.

I spend a day out at the farm where my father-in-law lived, working with my husband, his brother, and his brother’s girlfriend to begin the massive project of dismantling this chapter of the family home. Things had gotten away from him in this big old farmhouse. These closets were overstuffed, disorganized, and poorly maintained. For years, the brothers had asked their dad to let them come and help him to clean some things out, but he held on to his things and pushed them away.

As I went through a pile on top of a dresser, I was reminded of a story I once read about a nun whose worldly possessions fit into one box when she died. I remember that she had a beautiful hairbrush, an embroidered handkerchief, a prayer journal, and a pair of polished shoes. The writer spoke about her impact on the world around her as such a contrast to the small footprint she left behind. I am filled with grief, looking around the room at the many possessions of a man who I was never close to, and who didn’t give much in the way of an answer as to who he was in these rooms filled to overflowing with random things.

I begin to drag a giant plastic tote filled with old clothes to go to the burn pile through the hallway towards his back door. It’s a struggle to navigate with the load, and as I push and pull and fight with it, I am filled with rage.

I make it to the kitchen, and see my husband and his brother. I give the tote a giant kick and storm out the door. I stand on the porch and tears begin to flow. In the evening light, the sky is purple and crystal blue with streaks of pink clouds. The air is cold and crisp. Silence fills the expanse of fields surrounding us for miles.

Over the last 10 months, I have lost my grandmother, my grandfather, a cat, and a close friend from an old job. My husband has lost his father. Our core friend group has lost three more parents and another grandparent. Each time, the grief has hit in completely different ways, as we all help each other through—walking each others’ dogs or feeding each others’ cats; ordering dinner and staying in watching stupid tv instead of facing the world, knowing that at least we understand each other in this weird time; and laughing together about the macabre new trend we have of going to each others’ funerals.

Now, I count 2019 in losses:

  • For my grandmother, I was engulfed with a sense of wonder at a life lived in the service of others and how she had so much joy in the simplest of things, like a family dinner with her seven children and all the grandkids. Random friends? Welcome!
  • For my cat, only a year old and killed in a freak accident, I raged against god and was so angry I couldn’t breathe. My minister friend told me it was okay, that god is fine with us being angry. That anger is a real emotion, and helps us to get through the things in life that we can’t understand, like the cruel death of an innocent creature. He told me god could take it if I wanted to scream—and I did. It didn’t help much to ease the pain.
  • When my friend died, at the memorial they spoke of her struggle to come to terms with her illness and how she wrestled with the injustice of death come too soon. How she worked through it and found her faith strong enough to see her through, even though her body was failing her. I wept for her young adult children, and that they’d lost her daily strength—she was a rock for us all.
  • With my grandfather, only gone in November, I am working through my sense of loss even now. I found unexpected comfort from a friend who wrote on Facebook that his smile was familiar in a picture I posted—I never realized I’d inherited his mouth until that moment.

On my father-in-law’s porch, staring at the setting sun, I am dealing with a different grief. This death has brought me resentment—that a person would push his family to arm’s length and they still show up for him to pick up the pieces. That he wasn’t there for his boys, but yet they loved him. My husband comes to talk to me. “You are just now experiencing what we felt many years ago. We’re past this now, and have moved on to accepting how he was,” he says. “You’ll get there, too.” And I realize that he’s been grieving his father for years. For him, this is nearing the end of the story. For me, I’m just beginning to learn the lesson that waits for me.


When I get home, I begin to put clothes away. I open my closet, and start to purge…

Week 1: Setting up the Plan

Imperfect.

We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives…not looking for flaws, but for potential.

— ellen goodman.

In my mid-30s, I blew up my life, and over the last 2.5 years I’ve been slowly working to put everything back in order—but not back together, because I want a completely different life by the time I’m all done and ready to move forward.

I went back to grad school, I left a job that made me miserable, and I started my own business. Those were the big 3 of the shakeup.

As I let go of those big things the smaller things that I’d put up with because there were more important things to address started to clamor for attention, too. I started to ask why I didn’t stand up for myself more, why I wasn’t taking care of myself, and whether the beliefs I’d carried about myself through life to this point were even true anymore. I started to take a look at my relationships and the way that I spent my time.

Now, I am starting this project as a way to reset my parameters. I’m going to experiment with how I do things, do a lot of writing & thinking, and talk to other women.

By my 40th birthday, I hope that my life will be all set for the next chapter, full of joy and intention. I hope to have a framework to get me through whatever challenges come in the next decade.

While I’m going to write about a lot of ideas and subjects organically, these are the main topics I plan to dive into each month:

  • January: Health
  • February: Visibility, Self-Love, and Self-Care
  • March: Soul Searching
  • April: Financial Independence
  • May: Fashion and Organization
  • June: Relationships & Family
  • July: Travel
  • August: Creativity
  • September: Stepping Out of Comfort Zones

Another part of this project is being okay with imperfection, and being kinder to myself in the process of redesigning my life. My husband recently pointed out that I was hyper self-critical…and I knew that, but it was startling to know other people see that in me, too.

I don’t deserve to have to live under such hard criticism, even if it is from myself. I need to show myself some grace, and learn to make room in my life to learn, to make mistakes, and just to breathe. So, I made my word of the year for 2020: Imperfect.

If any of this sounds interesting, I hope you’ll follow my blog. I’ll have some challenges if you’d like to do some of the same projects that I tackle.

So, there it is. That’s the plan. I’ll share January’s Challenge on Wednesday.

It’s all happening.

Penny lane, Almost Famous.