Often times people do things or give things to others in life that are more than just the object or the act presented before them. It’s hard to know though what something means to someone else without the context of having lived their life. But more often than not I’d say it’s a safe bet that it’s taken a lot more than money and time for all of those things to be present before you. Thereby, if you can find the ability to make the effort to get to know someone else, you will essentially allow yourself to get more than you ever knew by doing so.
Here’s a personal cheat sheet to somewhat understand what I mean by that.
(Stock photo from the joyofbaking.com)
That’s what I was thinking about in the shower this morning – French toast. Not because I really wanted French toast (or because I want to start having all my posts revolve around my thoughts while I’m in the bathroom), but because of what French toast symbolizes for me.
French toast is one of those things that reminds me of times gone by; more specifically, of people who are no longer around.
It reminds me of Sunday mornings at my grandparents’ house when everybody would gather for brunch and just be a family. It reminds me of a whole family. Of people no longer here. Of laughter and love. And later, of the magical hangover cures that my friends and I looked forward to more than the parties themselves.
There was something magical about those times with my family. Something magical about that French toast my grandmother would make, and the scene where I shared those meals. I can remember everything about my French toast family Sundays: the smell, the way everyone chipped in to help, what bread she used, how she cooked it, what it looked liked in this giant tray when it finally made it to the table, how fucking hungry I was and how my grandmother used to nit-pick at me to take smaller bites (I would just cut my pieces smaller and stack them up instead), where everybody sat, and you damn well better believe I remember how it tasted.
Everything just seemed so simple and special in those moments when the smell of sweet, sweet calories were in the air. Maybe that’s because I was so young and I didn’t have the modern worries that I do today, but I’d like to believe it was more so because when I ate that French toast it was in a setting that signified everything that’s good in the world: family, sharing, love, selflessness. We all put aside everything on those days to be a part of something bigger, and no matter what else we had going on I don’t think anyone in my family really wanted to intentionally miss out on it. Course if you had, you would have definitely been guilt tripped by my grandmother for doing so.
What’s funny is that my grandmother – the mastermind behind the French toast and this nostalgic symbol of love and goodness that I’m fantasizing about now – wasn’t even the lovey dovey type despite all the memories I have of her masterpiece now. She was just quintessentially southern proper: reserved, a person who kept things ‘close to their chest,’ a stickler for etiquette and appearances, and a woman whom – regardless of your background or upbringing – you said, “Yes Ma’am” and “No Ma’am” to without hesitation. In fact, my grandmother and I actually weren’t even that close in comparison to my relations with other family members. But whether her stern self intended to or not, there was a lot of love in her cooking, and love that was passed on to others. Everything she made was from scratch and her meals had an undeniable amount of time and energy behind them from years and years of practice. Time and energy not spent by selfish means.
(Featured photo is my grandmother serving food to my uncle. Something I can assure you happened often. He’s a big boy.)
So whether she would have owned up to it or not, love is what made that French toast and those moments so special. Love and lots of butter.
Man, those were some good times. Sadly, I don’t have those Sundays anymore, or my grandmother, or her cooking.
My family honestly hasn’t been the same since my grandparents death. We’ve gathered. We’ve eaten. But there are no longer the two people – the two cornerstones – that held us all together. No longer the two people who set the tone. Who created all that unintentional or intentional trickle-down lovenomics.
But that wasn’t what I was feeling this morning necessarily when I thought about French toast. I wasn’t melancholy in my high carb day dreaming. I was actually happy and filled with love. Because a few years ago I discovered I could make my grandmothers French toast. I discovered I could continue on the magic of the French toast myself. Most importantly, by making that oh-so-tasty treat, I could share the love that it meant for me and the love I have for those close to me now.
Basically, what I felt this morning was simply a desire to make French toast for someone again. To show them my love and appreciation. To be able to make their hearts and bellies full. To pass on what my family and my grandmother, in particular, had taught me with her simple act of sustenance. To have everything that’s good in the world come back again.
And honestly, in a round about way, that’s how I have come to deal with all the loss I have had in my life now. I try to take the best of what was given to me by those whom I’ve loved and lost, and pass that onto others. Using simple acts (symbols) to allow their love to live on through me. In order to be able to see their love in the smiles of other people’s faces when those acts are reproduced, and to remember what that love felt like and smile myself.
Sweet Potato Pie
(This year’s batch of pies. You have to sample them for safety of course.)
It doesn’t just stop with French toast though. If you’re lucky enough to be called my friend (I think I have earned the ability to say that now), or just happen to cross my path, there are two significant other ways that I take the time and consideration to share the love I have been given by those no longer here to give it: sweet potato pie and just being there.
Sweet potato pie (apologies if I’m teasing anyone’s sweet tooth right now) is something I make every Thanksgiving and on other special occasions to signify the love that my grandfather showed me. Love that was representative of action not talk. Love that went out of it’s way to help others. Love that asked for nothing in return.
For the last few years or so on Thanksgiving I have made a large batch of sweet potato pies using my grandfathers recipe to give out randomly to people. Sometimes I give pies to unsuspecting friends, sometimes to emergency responders, sometimes to homeless people, and sometimes to family. I do this partially because Thanksgiving was a time that so closely resembled the magic of our Sunday brunches as a family also, but more so because Thanksgiving for me represents a tradition of selflessness. A time to be thankful for what you have, for helping those less fortunate; and for sharing a meal with others. The very things that my grandfather represented so emphatically to me in my life.
I can’t tell you how many times my grandfather went out of his way to help others. Hell, the only reason I think he gardened for the most part was so that he could give away all the food he (and I) grew. As a kid, I used to think it was ridiculous pulling weeds in this oversized garden every year that supplied much, much more than my grandparents could eat. Luckily, though, I have learned to see the magic of it all later in life, and I would love to have a big garden one day of my own.
So to pass on my grandfather’s love like I have my grandmother’s, I try and do something on occasion for others for no other reason than because I can. To always take the extra step. Because he taught me that a real man doesn’t need an excuse to do something good, and that real love isn’t expecting something back in return.
Of all the things I can do for others, the one thing that I have learned is the easiest and most important thing to do, is, to just be there.
My father taught me that.
He may have had a few flaws here or there (like not being able to cook ironically), but what I remember most about him is that he was always there. Always involved and always a part of everything my sister and I did while he was alive. There’s not a memory from my childhood that doesn’t have him in it.
Hell, he would drive five hours to see me play high school football when often times I was too much of a fucking dumbass teenager to even hang out with him afterwards. Choosing to go to parties instead. Sure would have been nice to of had that thing called foresight then.
The point I’m trying to make is, that even though we were raised by him with very little means (I didn’t have a shower or ‘new to me’ clothes until the end of middle school practically), we always felt loved. Undeniable, incredible love. Love that showed up in him always showing up. Making us always feel supported.
He wasn’t there to make sure we did things. He wasn’t there to qualify for an award. He wasn’t there because he was afraid something bad would happen. He was there because he didn’t want to be anywhere else. He was there because even if we didn’t say it or show him that it did, it mattered. He was there because he cared.
So, if I could go on living to have my friends say one thing about me when I’m gone (other than I’m crazy and unpredictable), it would be that I was there. I would want them to know that I’m there because I care. Not necessarily because I’m into whatever it is they are into, but because they have my unconditional love and support.
Like most things in my life now, these gifts I have to share with others and this understanding of how to make the most out of what I’ve been given in life is still fairly new to me. Unfortunately, my father has been dead for almost 17 years and I have not been there for others as he was for me until more recently. My grandparents have been dead for around ten years (it’s crazy to think about how long this has all been), and the world has been deprived of their love and cooking for almost as long.
I suppose that’s all just a part of growing up though.
Sadly, the way I used to deal with it all was through thinking that I had to make something out of their deaths and the deaths of others in my life in order to bring meaning to it all. In order to justify that there deaths weren’t in vain. Doing so by forcing everything in my life to be more, and to resemble more, and to mean more than it already did.
Creating instead only a world full of unfair expectations and unsatisfiable desires. Eliminating the ability to appreciate things as they were by trying to make them into something they were not.
Failing miserably at making anything out of anything, and eventually coming to understand that you do not honor the past or those you’ve lost by trying to control the present or the future. You honor them by simply being present.
It wasn’t until I lost everything that I had though, that I was able to see that and let go of this need for things to be a certain way, this need to make something out of everything, and to allow myself the permission to just live unconditionally. I suppose you could say in a way I was actually forced to do so, living the way I did until I reached a dead end. And I had a choice: change course or remain stuck.
So, long story short, just know that when I or someone else gives you theoretical or real French toast, or sweet potato pie, or if they’re just there, it may not necessarily be just empty calories or a butt in a seat. It may have taken a whole lot of love and loss for those things to be present. Cherish even the tiniest of acts, because one day they or the people that do them may no longer be there.
What’s your ‘French toast’?