Glimpses: On Becoming Me (Life Lessons from Six Ears of Sweet Corn)

By Barbara Knisely Michelman

 

Tis the season for buying sweet corn, so I loaded up on a half dozen ears at the farmers’ market. Corn on the cob is best consumed the day that it’s picked. I learned this important gastronomic factoid from my mom, whose garden produced enough sweet corn for our family of six to not only enjoy in season, but also “put up” (freeze) so that we could continue to enjoy it over many meals and months later.

 

Don’t tell my mom, but I didn’t get around to cooking that farmers’ market corn until two days later. As I piled the stockpot full of those freshly shucked ears of corn and enough water to boil them in, I yelled to Roland, who was on the other side of the kitchen, “If my mom were here, she’d eat all these by herself!”

 

He laughed and said, “Yep! I can picture her chowing down on them out on the deck!”

 

Dorthea Jean Claycomb Knisely, my mom. Back in the day that 120-pound (ish?) woman could easily consume six ears of corn in one sitting. At least.

 

I used to watch her accomplish this feat equally awed and horrified.

 

“Mom!”



“What?”

 

“Oh My God! You ate a full dinner, but you’re still eating more corn!”

 

“Well, I’m still hungry.”

 

To this day I marvel at just where she fit all that corn into that tiny frame of hers.

 

It’s now mid-July. I haven’t seen my mom since March 14, her 88th birthday, the weekend before the world shut down.

 

I was so nervous while planning to make that trip, terrified that we could unknowingly carry the virus with us and infect her. I kept listening, obsessively so, to reports of COVID cases on the rise; how the virus was overwhelming hospitals in New York City; and how it robbed so many Italian families of their beloved elders. I spent at least the week before we headed up to her house barking out drill sergeant-worthy orders to Roland and Ava:

 

“Did you wash your hands?”

 

“Go wash your hands right now!”

 

“Do not put your hands on your face!”

 

I was driving them both bonkers with my anxiety, and each day the skin on my own hands became more irritated from washing them so much--and for a full 20 seconds each time. (Please never sing the birthday song to me. EVER.)

 

Fortunately, my mom was fine and so were we. We celebrated with her, spent the night at her house, and then drove back home the next day. I’m so glad we made that trip.

 

I’ve been thinking so much about my mom these days as we go through the paces of our new normal, safe physical distancing lives. I can no longer just get in the car and drive the 3.5 hours it takes to see her for a few days, get her out of the house to visit extended family, and do all the things we enjoy doing, like eating out. My mom has lived alone for 32 years, since losing my dad to cancer at age 56. She has macular degeneration and is starting to exhibit signs of cognitive decline. She was already spending way too much time by herself, before this virus forced us all to stay home. I’m beyond grateful for my sister and brother who live back home, not too far from our mother, the health care aide who spends a couple of hours with her three days a week, and the cleaning person my sister hired to show up the other two. I also have another sister who lives about equal distance from home as I and who helps out when she can. We all do what we can, but it’s never enough, it’s never perfect. It just is what it is.

 

Stay-at-home orders only exacerbated my feelings of helplessness. I’ve tried to channel the love and energy I wish I could send her by trying to help out others as much as I can here, close to where we live.

 

I have organized a few neighborhood collections for relief organizations helping those forced to live at the margins, a sin in a country as wealthy as ours. I grocery shop for my neighbor who is immunocompromised and lives alone. I’ve delivered meals to friends who cannot cook for themselves because of injuries, surgeries, or illnesses. I give away herbs because I always plant more than I use. I write letters, text, message, and/or call friends to see how they are doing. I volunteer to serve on church committees, offer my time or my professional services to worthy non-profit organizations that have big hearts but tiny wallets. I make the majority of our daily meals, do most of our laundry, and clean the house (minus the teenager’s bathroom and bedroom). I am the designated family member who runs most of the errands.  

 

I realized recently that I have basically become a version, albeit a much paler one, of my mother, whose life was consumed from sunup to well after sundown with taking care of other people and running the house. I don’t know of many people who worked as hard as my mom. She was raised on a small, working family farm, so she was born into hard work and long days.

 

“I think I want to marry a farmer so that I can live in a pretty old farm house,” a much younger, romance novel-reading version of me told my mom one Saturday afternoon as we drove past one beautiful wood, stone, or brick farm house after another on the back country roads not far from where we lived.

 

“You wouldn’t make a good farm wife,” my mom laughed. “That’s a hard life.”

 

I deliberately cho,se an educational path that would take me away from our small town. And I spent the majority of my career jumping from one new, and seemingly better, opportunity to the next. Nine years ago, however, I realized that I could not “have it all,” so I walked away from full-time employment and into running my own business where I’ve never worked more than part-time. Over the past few years, my work has trickled down to a standstill. That’s partly my fault for not hustling as much as I should for new business, partly because my anxiety has been off the charts, and partly a symptom of the times. Many, if not all, of the nonprofits for whom I have worked have instituted hiring freezes and/or laid off staff. Not too many people can afford the luxury of hiring a “strategic storyteller,” my working job title these days, I guess. Jobs matching my skill sets exist. I’ve applied for some, but never heard back. Most days I’m just too exhausted to look.

 

I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. We have manageable monthly bills and my husband continues to be employed full-time. The newspapers, public radio broadcasts, and my social media feeds are full of stories of people who have lost family members to COVID, have been laid off from their jobs, struggle to juggle the demands of full-time work and small children at home, are dealing with their own mental or physical challenges or mange those of an immediate family member.

 

Comparative suffering (the rank ordering of each other’s pain) is a trap that I fall into despite  knowing that we should honor, not shame, our own feelings of loss.

 

I think, “How can I be sad? I’m living with my spouse and child. What about my mom, who lives alone, who has been living alone for years and years? I could have it so much worse.”

 

None of this is easy. Every day of living through this pandemic brings new challenges, but also new opportunities. Some days it’s easier than others to see them. Today I don’t have to water the plants because Mother Nature took care of that herself last night. I can almost hear my vegetables and flowers acknowledging her efforts over mine.

 

“I mean, that Barbara chick does an OK job with her watering can and garden hose, but you know what we really need, Mother Nature!”

 

I get it. No offense taken. We each have our own skills, talents, and competencies. I have been discovering mine over these weeks and months.

 

I make the best waffles.

I can strike up a conversation with anyone. Even with a mask on in the physically distanced grocery store line.

I can articulate why gerrymandering is ruining our democracy and must be ended. Permanently.

I’m an expert napkin ironer.

My superpower is knowing when someone needs an encouraging word or an empathetic shoulder.

I have perfected the roasting of a whole chicken.

I am confident speaking out and protesting against human and civil rights abuses. Don’t like what I have to say? Unfollow/unfriend me. It’s a free country!

Who needs a rice cooker when you can produce perfectly cooked rice in a small pot with a tight-fitting lid, two cups of water, one cup of rice, a teaspoon of salt, vinegar, oil or butter, and 20 minutes? (Trust me on this.)

I can make you laugh and forget your troubles. Even for a few seconds.

Maple syrup, EVOO, vinegar, salt, pepper, and mustard make the perfect salad dressing.

 

I need to call my mom and tell her how good that corn was that I bought at the farmers’ market, almost as good as the kind she served us fresh from the garden when we were kids. I wonder if she remembers how many ears she used to consume in one setting. I’ll have to be sure to share that memory with her. She’s taught me so much, like how so many stories rise from the steam of a home-cooked meal you made for the people you love.