It is that time of the year to be thankful. At Christmas it is time to be merry. At Easter, a time to … well, that depends on your perspective. After all, these are arbitrary dates. Easter moves around every year, so its arbitrariness is self-evident. Actually, so does Thanksgiving. But Christmas, well, that one’s nailed down at least.
But the fact that we attach a certain set of feelings to each one of these holidays, if we even celebrate them at all, well, that’s either nostalgia (e.g., my mother was, after all, always quite cheery at Christmas, or thankful on Thanksgiving, etc.) or it is merely the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Black Friday is the day I always, like a lemming rushing to the sea, go out shopping for no real reason than force of habit.
But let me get back to the arbitrariness of the dates and the concomitant emotions adhering to those dates, or rather holidays. If the dates are more or less fluid and not really fixed on the calendar—indeed, most historians would not attribute the historical date for the birth of Jesus to December 25—I would here like to introduce an alternative way of thinking, and maybe even an alternative way of living. First, with all due respect to nostalgia—and I think it should sans doubte be accorded some respect—what if we really did decide to keep Christmas cheer all year round and try to be merry every day? And, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, try to be thankful every day? And what about Easter? Well, that’s not so easy to define, but one adjective that comes to mind is hopeful—so hopeful it is. And what if we should try to be so every day? That would actually require us to master our emotions and marshal them, each and every day, to address the circumstances of that day. And, I admit, that would be hard. It would require of us generous forgiveness, lavish kindness, faithful optimism.
But just imagine, for a moment, the possible outcome? We could be fun to be around (merry), gracious and generous (thankful) and optimistic (hopeful), the last of these at least within realistic parameters. That might just make us pleasant, affirming, even likeable. Now there’s an idea for Thanksgiving this year. I, for one, am going to give it a try.
The news seems, these days, in the United States at least, always to be extreme. Now it sounds old to say, “When I was a child, there were no ‘extreme’ news stories or ‘extreme’ sports, or ‘extreme’ anything.” Even if it is true—and it is true, I assure you—it isn’t the present reality. The present reality is one of extremes, extreme sports like “Zorbing,” or “Powerbocking,” or “Parkour.” They are extreme precisely because they are dangerous. A website devoted to them states it well (if un peu trompé): “Extreme sports are all about the thrill. For some people, it’s for pure fun, and for others its [sic] about testing the limits of what is humanly possible.” What was once hopping about on a pogo stick has been transformed into Xpogo—short for extreme pogo. Such extremes are evocative not of the world I once knew, but a kind of Carrolian Wonderland.
Take Thanksgiving, for example. It was once just a holiday, pretty innocuous on the surface of it. Of course, it was acknowledged that the (much more than) cultural appropriation—in fact it was territorial appropriation—of the Europeans had come to the Americas and had brought with them a desire for adventure combined with a desire for prosperity (and in many, if not most cases, a desire for new freedoms, particularly religious freedom), and that with their coming came cultural displacement, cultural suppression and the confiscation of land. These were the difficult consequences of the migration/invasion/exploration of the Europeans coming to the new world. With them they brought diseases, particularly the common cold, which had devastating effects on the native population. They also brought advanced weaponry, a different kind of civilization, new religious ideas, and different values. Yet in the midst of all this chaos there was an idea that was realized in a moment of peace that hopefully showed some goodwill coming from both sides of the principal ethnic and cultural divide between the Europeans and Native Americans (the latter of which is a term that itself is unsettling, as the name “American” is derived not from a native word but from the name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci). That moment of peace, however idealized, is known as Thanksgiving, and I do hope that you and yours recently enjoyed a restful and peaceful Thanksgiving—if you celebrate.
I say “if” because it is now an emerging trend to ditch this holiday, too. I can fully understand and even embrace ditching Christmas. If one is not a Christian, why would one keep up the pretense of a emotive story about a baby being born in a stable, especially if that baby will, when full grown, prove either to be insane (claiming to be God, and all) or, worse yet, be so offensive as to impose his worldview on you—indeed on the world. I agree it is absurd to celebrate this holiday if you’re not a true believer.
But Thanksgiving had, until these days of extremes, always been given a kind of conditional pass. The condition is, of course, that one recognize that the European invasion/migration/domination had to happen, wasn’t preventable, and that it would be unrealistic and anachronistic to expect the settlers at the time to have had a post-modern perspective. They can’t be expected to have thought “politically correctly” in an era long before such a way of thinking existed.
But nowadays that free pass has evaporated, it would seem, as a prominent actress, Mayim Bialik, recently put forth a Youtube video in which she details four reasons why she finds Thanksgiving repulsive. “The truth is,” she states, “European invaders came to this land, took it from the indigenous people, raped, pillaged, gave them all sorts of diseases, called it their own, and desecrated a culture. It is one of the grossest examples of genocide in recent history and much as I don’t want to think about that, it’s really hard for me not to think about that when I think about Thanksgiving.”
That’s a lot of thinking, or perhaps not thinking it through. Genocide is hardly the right word, since it implies a clear motive—the way that murder is differentiated from manslaughter. Inasmuch as most Native Americans died from diseases brought by the Europeans, it would be a gross overstatement to say that the European settlers were genocidal.
Yet in the same spirit, I think, out-of-work quarterback Colin Kampernick, who single-handedly started a no-standing-for-the-national-anthem revolution, visited Alcatraz to support Native Americans who were celebrating “Unthanksgiving.” It’s hard to argue with the logic—of course we should support those who are oppressed or marginalized—until one ponders the whole Thanksgiving question for a few minutes. For if one does, one would rightly conclude that the point of Thanksgiving was never to vaunt, “We won, here’s our party to show that we conquered and oppressed the Native American population!” Only the most cynical person, someone deliberately imposing upon history their own interpretation of the events—admittedly often very sad events—could interpret a Thanksgiving celebration that way.
Indeed, the facts simply don’t lend themselves to such an interpretation. I say facts, because we have written accounts of them and, though, yes, these are written from the European perspective, they offer enough evidence to make it clear that the holiday’s origin is that of a harvest festival, and that the feast was shared between Native Americans and pilgrims. No one is pretending that there were not terrible atrocities associated with the European migration/invasion/conquest. But rather, Thanksgiving is actually a holiday that celebrates what it says, the giving of thanks. And that thanks was to God.
And there, I suspect, is where the true offense must actually lie. It’s basically the same offense that Christmas contains. It’s the name, not the history, or even the rewritten history. The name of Christmas has “Christ” in it. That is rightfully, as detailed above, a stumbling block, even an offense to the non-believer. And the entire meaning of the title “Thanksgiving” is offensive because it imposes upon the hearer the notion that one should (or some at least do) give thanks. And where else but to God himself? Yes, there’s the real offense. (And to make things worse, in most European languages the word “thanks” is derived from the Latin gratia, “grace,” a concept deeply embedded in Christian (and therefore European) thought. Muchas gracias. Lots of grace, thank you very much.
How do we make sense of all this in a world of extremes that seems at times, bespattered as it is with holidays such as UnThanksgiving, houses of unworship (known as unchurhces), and bizarre plastic surgeries, to be a kind of Mad Hatter’s world, Wonderland in its most deranged sense? I think John F. Kennedy’s words, taken from that same proclamation, cited in note 4, that he wrote about Thanksgiving just before he died, may offer us a sane a place to reflect and to offer our private thanks:
“Let us therefore proclaim our gratitude to Providence for manifold blessings–let us be humbly thankful for inherited ideals–and let us resolve to share those blessings and those ideals with our fellow human beings throughout the world.”
 Edward Winslow, Mourt’s Relation (1620) and William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (1651).
 President John F. Kennedy wrote in Proclamation 3560, “Over three centuries ago, our forefathers in Virginia and in Massachusetts, far from home in a lonely wilderness, set aside a time of thanksgiving. On the appointed day, they gave reverent thanks for their safety, for the health of their children, for the fertility of their fields, for the love which bound them together and for the faith which united them with their God…. Much time has passed since the first colonists came to rocky shores and dark forests of an unknown continent, much time since President Washington led a young people into the experience of nationhood, much time since President Lincoln saw the American nation through the ordeal of fraternal war—and in these years our population, our plenty and our power have all grown apace. Today we are a nation of nearly two hundred million souls, stretching from coast to coast, on into the Pacific and north toward the Arctic, a nation enjoying the fruits of an ever-expanding agriculture and industry and achieving standards of living unknown in previous history. We give our humble thanks for this. Yet, as our power has grown, so has our peril. Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers—for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.” ( http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=9511.)
I have a friend named Grace. We have been friends for years, and I always liked her ever since meeting her in, I think, perhaps the 4th or 5th grade. Though her own travels took her as far as Australia—long story—for the past several years Grace has had the rare privilege of living in the town in which we both grew up, New Hope, Pennsylvania. I, meanwhile, have lived in a variety of places, from Burlington, Vermont to Pennsylvania, to Rome, to New Jersey, and finally now Texas.
In Texas, oddly enough, I made another friend named Grazia, which is, of course, merely Italian for Grace. I always liked my Italian friend Grazia and her husband, Max, though I’ve not seen them for several years now since they moved to Houston. Both of their names sound like the Italian for thank you, grazie. Indeed, the Italian word for thank you is simply the plural of Grazia’s name, and therefore means “graces.”
“How funny,” I thought to myself the other day when I was out jogging. When you thank someone in Italian you’re sending them graces. And then I thought of Latin, of course, and it is the same. Welsh, gras, is an obvious cognate, though bendith conveys the idea, too, with an element of blessing. And what about Greek? Eucharisto. “Blessing be to you!” Well, it is the same. In fact, right in the middle of the word is a variation on that same idea again—charis—a blessing that is a gift given freely. And then, as if a Lutheran with his catechism in front of him, I thought, “What does this mean?” It means, of course, you want to bless the person who did you a good turn. You want to bless them freely.
But it means much more than that, much, much more, just as “good-bye” means more. The latter expression means, you may know, “God be with ye.” The PC crowd, who are now seeking to expunge any reference to “Woodrow Wilson” from Princeton, will no doubt go after “good-bye” next; surely good-bye is at least a micro-aggression against proper atheists and possibly even agnostics. Likewise, the word “grace” means much more than merely “grace.” It means blessing in the highest; it means a blessing with no strings attached.
Someone very dear to me this week said, “Words are just words.” Could he really know what he was saying? Does he not realize that words are more often than not much more beautiful, much more powerful than actions. It would be like saying, “art is just art,” or “the sculpture is just stone.” Think about the idea that the David of Michelangelo should be described as “just stone.” No, my friend, never tell a philologist that words are just words, for he will tell you that they actually always mean something. They mean a great deal. Wrought well, they can be the equivalent of Michelangelo’s David. They can bring healing; they can render peace; undergirt by proper actions, they can change the world.
But back to “thank you.” In Welsh, it is less comely (Diolch) pronounced with more phlegm than the Flemish Dank or the Dutch dankjuwel or the more widely known German Danke. Eucharisto. Grazie. Gratias ago. I render you graces, a blessing with no strings attached. I give you a free gift, a bunch of them. That is how thankful I am: there are no strings attached to my sentiment toward you. I recognize that your gift came to me with a similar spirit of free gift-giving. Thank you for that. That’s what “thank you” really means. And at the center of it is grace.
Then, as I was jogging, I thought about forgiveness, which is an exercise of that grace, certainly the most difficult exercise of it. Is that something like the “amazing grace” about which one might sing on any given Sunday? It is, rather, a response to it. I thought about it in part because I have a dear friend—actually a couple of friends—who need very much to exercise that grace now toward one another and toward others as well. Sadly, they don’t realize that the rendering of forgiveness would free themselves much more than the person whom they might forgive. No, they seem to think of the exercise of grace as some kind of transaction. At least one of them—perhaps both—feels that someone “owes them” something and he is demanding his due recompense; that he is a fool not to claim that recompense. That his whole life has been one of being taken advantage of, and he’s had enough. What he can’t see, of course, is that the forgiveness he needs to render will actually liberate himself more than the person whom he needs to forgive. (“Forgive us our sins as we …” What does this mean? I leave that aside.)
To find grace, I’ve tried to tell him, one must turn around. This is especially true when one is looking in a mirror and blaming every uncomely feature of oneself on someone else. “My nose—I hate it!—I got that from my mother’s side of the family. My ears—too small!—alas, alack, they’re from my father’s side!” Standing right in front of the mirror means quite often obscuring the other folks in the room, or if you do see them, they’re way behind you and in fact you’re viewing them in reverse. In truth, one rarely realizes that even when looking at oneself in a mirror one only sees oneself backwards. I simply mean this: a right- handed person in a mirror appears to be left-handed. Your hair will be parted quite on the opposite side than you really part it. The words on your t-shirt come out all backwards and funny looking. You can’t trust mirrors, and psychologists tell us that it is unhealthy, or at least a little strange, to spend too much time gazing in a mirror, where one can see oneself, certainly, but the vision that we see is skewed and inaccurate, blocking out those behind us or, even when not, seeing them in a skewed and inaccurate way, as well.
But it’s hard to turn away from the mirror and render grace to those behind you, especially when you can empathize better with the person in that mirror than you can with anyone else. Yes, that may be true, but the person you see in the mirror may not be who you think he is. First of all, as we already said, at the very least, he is backwards from the reality. And so is anyone else you see in the background. Your vision, which seems so accurate to you, is, necessarily, inaccurate, certainly when it comes to yourself. Secondly, the person you see in the looking glass may be not the real thing in a number of other ways. Folks with anorexia, for example, sadly do not see that they are morbidly underweight. Instead, they think they see, studies have shown, a person who is overweight; those who are morbidly obese quite often see something quite the opposite, or fail to recognize the danger that they behold.
But let me get back to grace. If you have a friend named Grace, as I do, be thankful. By virtue of her very name, she will, of course, remind you to be so. She will, too, remind you to be generous, as one needs to render grace freely. Her name will also—and this is most important—remind you to be more than giving; her name reminds you to be forgiving, not simply of those who have wronged you somehow—in ways that may appear in your mirror as MACRO-aggressions but in reality, when you turn away from the mirror, are, at the most, micro-aggressions—but also of yourself, and of everyone. What better time of year than the Christmas season to turn away from the mirror, which can so easily deceive, and to face reality, become thankful, giving, and most of all forgiving?
Well, I leave this all aside to allow this week’s blog to remain short and sweet, and to close with a tasty treat, the classic Welsh cookie—also known as Welsh cakes—that our family has eaten at Christmastime every year without interruption since Lucy Hughes Jones arrived from Wales in 1869. The recipe is that of Blanche Jakes, though she herself got from Elizabeth Ann Evans, her mother, who got it from her mother, Lucy Hughes Jones. Though Welsh cookies do not go so well with hot chocolate or coffee—I’ve tried them, and I don’t recommend—they are delightful with tea, truly amazing. You will give thanks for them if you try them with tea. So I recommend baking them, sharing them with friends. Even Elaine’s father, Harry Jakes, who hated raisins, loved them, though he dutifully removed the raisins, an act that always drove his wife Blanche to distraction.
Next week’s blog will be the first in a series of stories about Christmas. I hope you like them. Though they are technically fictional, like the Curious Autobiography, they are all essentially true; they hark back to a true time, one long past, when terrorism didn’t exist, or if it did, it was unknown to the community described in the stories. Then, even though grief and sorrow were all too familiar, thankfulness was simply an aspect of life, as was grace. And forgiveness was well known, as well. In that community, as you will see if you care to read these stories in their weekly installments—and here’s the spoiler alert—grace, in the end, would prevail. Please enjoy those tales, the Stories of a Christmas Yard, as you sit by your fireplace next to your Christmas tree, with your feet up on the divan,
and a cup of good Paned Gymreig tea served with a Welsh cookie or two. In the meantime, I hope you have had a Happy Thanksgiving, which itself is a felicitous rendering of grace. Diolch i chi, darllenydd annwyl, grazie, eucharisto, gratias, Vielen Dank—simply put, thanks for reading and, for now, good-bye!
Thanksgiving Day in America is a time of great joy for some, joy sometimes laced with sorrowful memories. Yet one aspect that I particularly enjoy about Thanksgiving is the opportunity to recall, to reflect not simply on the many blessings of the year but also upon old friendships, family members who have passed away, and even those who are alive and well but who live at a great distance. Seeing Emil and Janet (née Jakes) a few weeks ago in Nanticoke was a blessing; reuniting with an old friend, like my Austrian friend Peter, who is coming to visit this Thanksgiving will be a sweeter treat than the pumpkin pie.
Indeed, seeing a friend after many years is a uniquely wonderful thing. A few days ago I was in Europe, finishing a trip to Paris and Rome. (God bless Paris, in this hour, and all of humanity in a difficult and especially tense moment.) On that occasion just over a week ago now, I went for the first time, at the invitation of a friend, to the university known as La Sapienza, Rome’s most renowned university.
The name of the university (in Italy held in as high regard as Oxford or Princeton is among Anglophones) means, when translated, “The Wisdom,” and though it enjoys perhaps the most interesting name of all the major institutions of higher learning in the world, it suffers from the starkest architecture and least comely examples of bas relief.
The reason for this is that most of the buildings of La Sapienza were designed by Marcello Piacentini (a name that means “little pleasing” and whose buildings please but litte), one of the principal architects of the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, under whom apparently ugly was then the new beautiful, just as abject was the new free. Yet this blog is not to be about politics or architecture or intended to slander the no doubt well-intentioned educational wing of the fascist regime, or even to be rife with paradoxical statements or oxy-(or any other types of)-morons.
Rather, it is about my trip to “The Wisdom,” where I heard the lecture of a certain Professor Conte, whom some regard as the most famous philologist in the world. Now it might sound a little bit funny to say the most famous philologist, for I just promised not to indulge in oxymorons. After all, you might be wondering, can any philologist really be famous? But Professor Conte is famous, at least in certain circles, and the sizable lecture hall (or aula) in which he presented his lecture at La Sapienza was so packed with students and professors that many had to stand or sit on the floor. There the esteemed, recently retired professor from Pisa delivered his lecture on literary “thefts,” or borrowings, as he was seated at a desk atop a raised dais at the front of the aula.
The last time I had seen the great professor was about a quarter century ago when I was fortunate enough to visit Princeton University when he was lecturing there as a visiting fellow, as I recall, in Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study. All of this was just before he became the top literature professor at la Scuola Normale in Pisa, which, when translated, is perhaps the second most interestingly named institution of higher learning in Italy, i.e., the “Normal School.”
All those many years before, that same professor and I had enjoyed a dinner together, after which we had stayed up smoking cigars, something I pretended that was not abnormal for me, although of course he knew it was. As he and I smoked—he enjoying the cigars, I merely trying not to choke—we chatted about literature and art, culture and rhetoric, and yes, even the idea of literary “thefts”—that is the way that one author might draw on the work of another—a fresh consideration of which was, all these years later, the subject of his lecture at La Sapienza. Such thefts, he said, are not plagiarism, but imitations that are adapted, reinvigorated, and deployed afresh; they are made new, made one’s own.
Seeing him again was something like returning to a favorite grove, one nearby your childhood haunts, if you should be lucky enough to have had a grove or a memorable childhood; I am fortunate to say that I did (cf. Curious Autobiography, ch. 9).
Yet to return to the metaphor, seeing such a friend is a situation comparable to when one might rediscover one’s favorite tree, the one under which you once sat reading and thinking, and reading some more. That is what it was like for me to have sat before him again as he spoke. I found the shade of that tree, its daunting height, the inspiring reach of its branches sweetly invigorating, joyous, refreshing my memory of years gone by.
We spoke for a few minutes after his presentation. He remembered me (“of course,” he said sincerely) after so many years. It was as if, save the cigars, we were discussing literature again, even his favorite poem, and mine; for we share a single poem, a single author. Moments like this are rare, but they are important, and I spend this blog writing about this one for a very good reason: I would submit to you that they are among the finest moments that we can share. Life is tragically short, and we have but few such opportunities. If Milton is more than poetically correct about his late espoused saint come to him like Alcestis from the grave, rescued from death by Herculean effort, though pale and faint, we may just see our friends again. It will not merely be in The Wisdom’s aula, but in the Hall of true wisdom.
But to say as much is itself a Miltonic theft, of sorts, which is why I do it here, both as a tribute to the professor and as a harbinger of a glorious hope. And, in as much as I am about the business of thievery, let me allude to a painting that deftly suggests such a scene, one by Raphael.
Though none in the aula of La Sapienza could have known as much that afternoon as we sat there listening intently to the professor, we were but a few hours away from the Paris bombings. How miserable that the arts and humanities can be so quickly destabilized by terror. How incredibly sad such a grotesque act can render the world asunder. Though the terrorists have sadly claimed the lives of a few, they have nonetheless failed to steal our culture, for they know nothing of the thefts about which we speak here. They shall never lay claim to the liberty of our souls that produces art, literature, and what the French call joie de vivre.
Yet we have much to be thankful for, even in the midst of such tragedy. And that brings me back to the notion of Thanksgiving, much more than “turkey day.” Rather, it seems to me that we might better nickname it “Memory Day,” a day to recall both the material blessings, such as shelter and food—a sample of which might be to your taste, see below—and those who came before, whether a distant quasi-historical memory of some pilgrims and their supposed encounter with Native Americans or someone in our families for whom we are particularly thankful. On Memory Day we might just recall all those who went before us: they made our country, the United States, what it is—a wonderful cultural mélange with a distinctly American moral compass and unparalleled work ethic—and they also made the world a better place.
Certainly, my grandparents did that: they sacrificed not simply for their family, but for the poor. Harry took part in, I recall distinctly, a number of mission trips to Haiti, long before community service became chic. Closer to home, he and Blanche, my grandmother, would often clandestinely provide food and clothing for the poorer families nearby—whether in Larksville, Shavertown, Kingstown, or Nanicoke—dropping the homemade care packages off on their porches. So, my dear reader, I will, for my part, think on these things as a relish the hope of seeing old friends again, both those who are founts of learning and thosefamily members, whose time in this world may have passed but whose legacy abides. Both are sources of humane and cultured inspiration. Their inspiration stands; it flies in the face of the cowardly acts of terror of our times. From both that professor and progenitors, I will commit humane “thefts,” as I hope to imitate both by borrowing directly from them in my thoughts and my life. And in that sense, I hope you will join me and be a thief. Sometimes, indeed, it takes a thief.
 In the inscription above the main portal the Latin phrase Studium Vrbis presumably suggests a center point for the study in the city rather than the discipline of Urban Studies or the like. When translated, it literally means “Study of the City” or “The City’s Study.”
The title of this blog is misleading. It is not meant to be. It is, actually, meant to be leading, for it is the first in the series of blogs on recipes. Now that, too, is misleading. This series—about a month’s worth— will not simply present a recipe and a tasteful discussion of it, followed by another recipe the next week, and so on. Rather these recipes are going to be stories that happen to involve recipes. For those of you who have read the Curious Autobiography, you know already that from time to time the narrator, Elaine Jakes, introduces a discussion of an item of food in some detail, often offering at least partial cooking instructions. She is eager to share with her reader not simply her recollection of the prepared food but her account of how that food affected an event in her past.
The story we will considered today is that of the mildly mendacious mender of musical instruments, Mickey Musgrove, who that day dined at the Jakes home at 414 Rutter Avenue, Kingston, Pa; the second was the guest of honor—though he would have insisted that Mickey was that honored guest—the good Reverend Hugh Griffith, whom, if you have been reading these blogs, you have met in a previous iteration.
On that evening, the first Saturday evening of December in 1941, Reverend Griffith was no longer the young, robust and enthusiastic evangelist who had served in a Welsh Presbyterian parish in Scranton before taking the call at Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Rather, he was about 70—if not quite old by modern standards—somewhat frail, and wiser, still preserving enthusiasm, yet tempered by wisdom. And that evening this last quality was in full sail. His wisdom, and his very presence on that occasion, is highlighted and explained by the person who sat across from him at table, Mickey Musgrove.
No one had seen Mickey Musgrove in the Wyoming Valley for thirty years until Blanche ran across him when she was shopping in Wilkes-Barre’s Boston Store just after Thanksgiving but a week or so before the evening in question. In the old days, Mickey had been known for his unique capacity to repair musical instruments, specifically violins. Of Blanche and Harry Jakes, whose home he was then visiting for dinner with the good Reverend Griffith, he was sempeternally beloved, in no small part for his having often repaired the violin of Blanche’s father, David Evans, who had once penned award-winning Welsh hymns with Reverend Griffith. So there was a connection, if an indirect one, of vicar and vagrant alike. But the real reason Blanche had invited Mickey for dinner was, of course, because she was worried about him and always had been, even before he left the Wyoming Valley. She had heard rumors, she had said prayers, and she had always kept a place for her father’s old, somewhat strange friend in her heart.
“So, tell us about what you’ve been up to these past several years,” said the ever-and-always-interested-in-someone-else reverend.
“Traveling, rambling about at first, until I got to paradise.”
“Paradise?” the reverend queried. “What ever do you mean?”
“Well,” Mickey said, pausing and stroking his plenteous beard, “It all began when I left the Valley”—by this he meant, of course, the Wyoming Valley—“by train for Chicago. I thought I could find good employ there.”
“But you had work here,” Blanche said, briefly forgetting Mickey Musgrove’s well-known penchant for mendacity. Then, realizing her error and seeking to allow him a way out of her quasi-accusation, she swiftly added, “Didn’t you? Or perhaps I’m wrong.”
“My work was running dry. After your father’s passing, I lost some other clients, and well, it was getting pretty thin, lass.” He always called Blanche lass, for he had worked for her father and remembered her as a child.
“What’s a lass?” the precocious five-year old Elaine Jakes piped in, swinging her legs in syncopated rhythm over the side of her chair under the table.
“It’s you, a girl,” her father Harry responded, and then added, “Well, in Mother’s case, a lady.”
“Finding no good work there, I went on to San Francisco. I had heard that there were a great deal of violinists in San Francisco. They had just founded a symphony there three years or so earlier. So I moved there and found a good job working for the symphony repairing instruments. I loved the conductor, Mr. Hadley, but I failed to garner as much work from his successor, Mr. Hertz, even though he had an electric personality and was famously on a Time magazine cover. So I decided to move on.”
At this point some good conversation followed, during and about the meal. The salad, though praised by the Reverend, was nothing flashy, just the three-bean style, the ordinary winter salad as lettuce was not in season. No one dared ask Mickey why he had been away, for there were rumors of an affair with a woman of color and a child born out of wedlock, and his shame alongside her own. The woman, Shandra Braeburn, who eventually became the apple of his eye, had worked in the men’s clothing department of Fowler, Dick and Walker’s Boston Store in Wilkes-Barre, where Mickey was shopping for a new overcoat. They fell in love, but as racially mixed marriages were not permitted in those days, they could see each other only discreetly. Discretion gave way to a tryst; a tryst to pregnancy, and pregnancy to a baby and, for both of them, disgrace. Shandra found a position as an au pair to the wealthy Flødrødgrød family, new to the area having only freshly arrived from Denmark and with little English. Shandra would teach them and their child good English and they, in return, would give her and her child, Sarah, a good home free of racial prejudice. In their household Shandra was raising her lovely daughter alongside the Flødrødgrød child, Katarina, as if sisters. She did so until the influenza epidemic of 1918, when that savage disease took both Shandra and her child—Mickey Musgrove’s child—away from this life forever.
Yet when Shandra became pregnant, Mickey left the Wyoming Valley quietly, with no forwarding address and thus none of this did Mickey Musgrove know when he returned to the Valley or even when he came to dinner that night. Blanche was not sure if he knew it, but she knew that he needed to know and she knew that, even though Mickey had not been a churchgoer in the old days, the good Reverend Griffith was the one who could and should tell him. Blanche and Harry had explained all this to the reverend, of course, before Mickey arrived at dinner that evening. Yet, to their astonishment, as they were in the process of explaining the affair, they soon realized that the reverend already knew all of the salacious details.
What came next in the conversation, however, was the most shocking thing of the evening, for before Mickey Musgrove would explain what he had meant by paradise—and all were still waiting intently to hear about that, even as the main course of Welsh chicken, leek and prune pie was being served, whose recipe is detailed below—he told everyone why he had come home. “I’ve come back,” he said, “I’ve come home …” he broke off for a moment, as he was tearing up, “to find my Shandra, to find my daughter. Father, forgive me, I have sinned.”
This paternal reference was not to God, but to the Reverend Griffith who properly deduced that Mickey must have been Catholic as a child, for he used the ministerial designation “Father” rather than “Reverend.”
“God forgives the repentant heart, Mickey,” the cleric said comfortingly. “Go on lad, tell your story.”
“What’s a lad?” piped in the precocious Elaine, continuing to swing her legs squirmily.
“The opposite of a lass,” said Elaine’s older-by-seven-years sister Lee Ann, adding, “That means the opposite of you!”
“I thought you were the opposite of me. So you’re a lad.”
“Quiet, child!” Blanche said, restoring order among her daughters. “Now, if you’ve both finished eating, Lee Ann, why don’t you take Elaine upstairs to color?” Both girls were all too glad to escape the boring conversation of the adult world.
Adjourning to the adjacent living room for coffee and dessert, the conversation continued after an appropriately timed pause.
“Shandra and I, well, we were a couple, Father, and we had a child out of wedlock. I know it’s a terrible thing. You see, Father, Shandra’s a negro.”
“God forgives,” the good prelate said, and pointing toward Mickey’s likely Catholic heritage, he added, “He has already forgiven you at the cross. You know, that’s why you often see Jesus depicted on a crucifix, suffering. He suffered for your sins and mine, and took them away. But the sin,” he added thoughtfully, “has nothing to do with the color of her skin, Mickey. Nor with the baby born, for God loves all the little children, indeed all people.”
“Not her color?” Mickey asked.
“No, not Shandra’s color, nor your child’s. Rather, the sin is yours for having relations with her, son”—for he reasoned that if Mickey called him Father, he might make Mickey feel more comfortable if, in the Catholic manner he called him son, even though less than ten years separated them—“when you were not married. And it is society’s fault, too, for telling you that you couldn’t marry her.”
“I wanted to marry her—desperately I did—but I could find no way to do that properly.”
“I know, son, and I understand, and God does, too.”
“Do you absolve me, Father?”
Now here Reverend Griffith was going way out on a limb not open to most protestant ministers when he said, “I do,” but, lest he deviate too far from Reformed thought, he quickly added, “for Jesus did that already on the cross.”
Overall, the evening was not as awkward as it sounded. Blanche’s pineapple upside-down cake was a wonderful cap to a delightful meal. But the most difficult part was to follow, just after Harry cleared the dessert plates.
“That was delicious, the prune, leek, and chicken pie, a delight, the pineapple cake, like paradise,” Mickey said, adding after a chorus of affirmations, “You know, there are pineapples galore in paradise.” And at this point Mickey was clearly about to explain how he left San Francisco for Hawaii, how he had taken a small apartment not by the then already famous Waikiki beach but rather not far from the ship depot at Pearl Harbor, and how the view of the Pacific and the natural beauty of the Diamond Head volcano was indescribable. Yet the reverend broke in right after he mentioned the copious amount of pineapples in paradise.
“Mickey, I have some bad news for you,” Reverend Griffith said, changing the subject.
“What is it, Father?”
“Shandra and Sarah, your daughter, died just a few years after you left. It was the terrible epidemic, the flu.”
There was a pause, a look of loss and bewilderment on Mickey’s face, and on all their faces. Harry and Blanche were tearing up as the Reverend sat next to Mickey on the couch and put his arm around him.
“Where are they buried, Father? Can I see them? Did they have a proper funeral?”
“I did their funeral, son.”
At this last piece of information Blanche and Harry were flabbergasted. Mickey let his emotions out, sobbing what sounded like, “Father, thank you, Father.” Yet now it did seem that he was praying, rather than addressing the prelate.”
The evening ended with no discussion of paradise, merely with the hope of another. It was clear that though Mickey’s earthly paradise lay beyond San Francisco, to find which he had gone to the end of the earth or at least past the edge of the continent, Mickey was on the verge of discovering a further paradise. The promise of that paradise had been at home all along or, rather, beyond the edge of one’s physical home, just beyond the edge of one’s imagination.
“Will I see you in church tomorrow?” the reverend inquired as they were going down the front steps of 414 Rutter Avenue.
“I’ve not been in a house of God for many a year, Father.”
“But you were in a godly house tonight, Mickey. There’s no difference between a godly house and a house of God,” Reverend Griffith quipped, and then added, “You’d be most welcome.”
“See you tomorrow, Father. It will be a day to be remembered, for come I will.”
That next day would be remembered in more ways than one. It would be remembered for the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which was in fact the paradise that Mickey Musgrove had failed to mention. He had found paradise, but needed to come home to find family and peace. Had he stayed in his comfort zone, he might have died there. Instead, he came home to a welcoming Welsh leek stew, through which to find life anew.
Blanche Evans Jakes’ Welsh Chicken, Leek and Prune Pie
(handed down by Elaine Lucille Jakes)