My fingers trailed over the white woven clutch purse and lingered on the gold clasp. It’s an elegant thing, something a lady might carry for an evening at the symphony, certainly too refined for a rawboned woman like me. My friend Jeannie sent it to me as a birthday gift after I moved to the ranch in Arizona. I remembered smiling when I pulled it out of the box and slipped it out of its plastic wrapping. This will look great with my steel toed shoes, I thought. I’d left the corporate world of skirts and heels behind, but in Jeannie’s eyes I was still polished and professional. We used to joke how we looked forward to Saturdays. Jungle Rules, she’d say, meaning no make-up, hair pulled back, sloppy jeans and sweatshirts, but I never for a second believed Jeannie would stoop so low. On casual Fridays, I’d waltz into the office in jeans, sweater and comfy loafers. Jeannie breezed in wearing slacks, a crisp blouse and jacket, a bright scarf slung around her neck, gold earrings, and low heels. I’d tease that she was too dressed up; she’d peer over her reading glasses at me and pluck the one piece of lint clinging to my sweater.
I found out yesterday that Jeannie passed away and have been on the edge of tears ever since. Tom sat quietly and listened while the memories poured out of me. Work was our stomping ground and formed the basis of our friendship. We were the same age, although when she irked me, I reminded her from time to time that she was six months older. We compared recipes and men, commiserated over raising our kids and office politics, and laughed our way through it all. Holidays and family were important to Jeannie. I marveled at her Franklin Planner overflowing with business appointments and copious notes on birthdays and events. Everyone was family, from her two sons to the neighbor who watched her cats to the receptionist at the office. Together Jeannie and I kicked off every Christmas season by attending the One-Of– Kind Art & Craft Show in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. I’d whip out an old envelope with a few names penciled on the back, but Jeannie’s list rolled like a tape from an old adding machine, a list to rival Santa’s. The show featured over 500 vendors and we’d arrive a half hour before the doors opened, cups of hot coffee and tea in hand. We’d plot shopping strategies while we stood in line, but in the end, we’d careen up and down the aisles, bouncing from booth to booth like ping pong balls, filling our canvass shopping bags to overflowing. All the time Jeannie watched carefully to see what caught my eye, maybe a pair of earrings or a pottery bowl, and somehow the piece always found its way into her bag and into my gift for the holiday.
The last few years we worked together, Jeannie developed uterine cancer. She struggled through with surgery and chemo. She never lost heart and managed to beat back the disease but her battle prompted us all to take a hard look at our lifestyles. As a result, a group of co-workers decided to ditch the afternoon Snickers bar for a healthy glass of fresh juice. We pitched in to buy a Jack LaLanne juicer and had the local grocery store deliver a standing order of fresh produce every Monday morning: carrots, celery, apples, parsley, pineapple, cucumbers…. Around two in the afternoon, Jeannie, our coworker Sue, and I would gather in the office kitchen and make juice. We cut arm and neck holes out of garbage bags and slipped them over our clothing to use as aprons. It was the only time I ever saw Jeannie looking less than perfect. We’d finish, whip off our bags, and then walk around the office delivering cups of fresh juice to pep everyone up.
Shortly after I moved to Arizona, the company we worked for was sold and, like me, Jeannie moved on to another life. After Tom and I married, we traveled to Missouri and spent a day with her and her Dave at their house on Lake of the Ozarks. Jeannie and I floated side by side on rafts, holding hands to keep from drifting apart while we chatted and splashed. You look happy, she said and I replied, so do you. Divorce, job changes, raising kids, living life on our own terms…we were both survivors and we knew it.
I popped open the clasp on the clutch purse. A piece of stiff cardboard was still tucked inside and shame washed over me. The clutch was still brand new; I’d never once used this gift from my friend. Yet, I’d kept it. Even though it didn’t fit my new lifestyle, I never could bring myself to give it away. I removed the cardboard and left it open on my lap. It still doesn’t quite fit my life, but it fits my memories of my dear friend. I placed a few things inside it, things I’ll need the next time I go out.
“Mom! Did you eat those salt water taffys?” I had to admit it, I did but I was on vacation and that calls for a little deviance from the norm. My daughter was shocked, of course, as eating healthy is my mantra. Of course, that wasn’t always the case and while I shy away from sugary foods, I still have a sweet tooth. Since dentists seem to be quick when it comes to yanking out wisdom teeth, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask him to extract that darn old sweet tooth, but he shook his head, laughed and patted my hand condescendingly. He must still have his own set of wisdom teeth, for when I told him I was serious, he wisely said it’s not that easy.
Having a sweet tooth isn’t my only imperfection. The weeds are keeping pace with the tomatoes and peppers in my garden. I’m terrible in social situations, forgetting names and tripping over my tongue when meeting new people. In my twenties, my then husband’s aunt tried to teach me how to embroider. I proudly showed her my little handkerchief covered in violets, but she immediately flipped it over to find all the mistakes on the back. When it comes to cooking, I’m game to try new things but my follow through is lacking. Today I attempted to make a gluten free peach pie for my husband’s birthday. Instead of glutinous flour, the pie crust recipe called for a mix of 4 main dry ingredients: rice flour, tapioca flour, corn starch, and sorghum flour. I was out of rice and sorghum flour and, rather than a quick trip to the grocery store, I did my usual thing, substituting all purpose GF flour and an extra scoop of tapioca for good measure. The pie came out of the oven and, while it smells good, it’s a bit sorry looking. No worry, though, for Tom will give me points for trying, especially when I present him with a plate of my no fail almond butter cookies.
So I don’t come close to perfection. In fact, you might say I am perfectly imperfect and I’m okay with that. I can understand my daughter’s reaction, though, as it’s kind of hard to discover that someone you’ve looked to for guidance may not be the wisest (remember, I did lose 4 wisdom teeth after all). Even more difficult is accepting your imperfections.
A few years back, my own mom and I were discussing the menu she was trying to put together for a family get together. My mom is lovingly called “the social director”. If there’s a party, she’ll go. If not, she’ll put one together. This is a woman who, at the age of 82, not only bowls in 4 senior bowling leagues each week but is the secretary for each one. Every Tuesday morning for years she’s attended her TOPS group (although she doesn’t need to), and is re-elected every year as an officer. So it shocked me that my mom was stressed about her shindig. I’ve always thought of her as a good cook but she was comparing herself to her sister who is a bit of a gourmet cook, my cousin who totally nails every recipe, and another cousin who owns four high-end Chicago restaurants. Mom wanted to put out a spread that would rival this trio’s assembled culinary skills. Rather than compete, I told her best to make the gathering a pot-luck and let them all have at it.
When it comes to imperfections, I’ve heard of two schools of thought. One is to focus on your strengths and the second is to improve on your weaknesses. I prefer a third approach. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Polonius told his son Laertes, “To thine own self be true.” Be honest and know yourself. Accept what you’re good at, recognize your faults, and figure both into the mix that is you. In other words, be good but live a little and don’t beat yourself up about it. I walk past the candy rack every time I’m at the grocery store, but I indulge a bit on holiday. Sometimes my cooking experiments fail and sometimes they come out divine, like my no fail almond butter cookies. Once a month I take a hula hoe to the garden weeds to make it look presentable, but Tom tells me those little weeds in the garden are actually nitrogen fixers that help my veggies grow. I like to think my imperfections are like that: little Kathy-fixers that make me a little messy but, in the end, define and shape a better me: perfectly divine, healthy and whole just as I am.
Anyone care for an almond butter cookie?
No Fail Gluten Free Almond Butter Cookies
1 cup almond butter
¾ cup organic sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 Tbsp vanilla
Handful of slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients except almonds in a bowl. Mix in the almonds. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Drop spoonfuls of cookie dough onto the parchment paper. Bake for 10 minutes. Cookies will be soft when they come out of the oven. Let cool for 15 minutes then transfer to plate. Allow to set for half hour. Makes about 15 cookies.