Autumn of 1977. The faculty wives have come together in the modest University Heights home of a physics professor. Their Aquanet hair is sprayed to the heavens and at significant risk of igniting from lipstick-stained cigarettes that are resting precariously in the cradle a heavy crystal ashtray. Their business is serious. They are putting together a cookbook. The Faculty Wives Cookbook of 1977, to be precise. It is a noble task. They will cook from it for their young families, for their husbands, that is, the faculty. Even more, they will use each other’s recipes. Martha will cook Mary’s chili; Margaret will lose weight on Donna’s diet cabbage stew. It is an achievement that will be smugly displayed on bookshelves for decades. It will yellow, and the black plastic spiral binding will wear and crack. The Kinko’s heavy card stock cover will be ringed with coffee marks. And, one day, daughters-in-law will decide whether to keep it or to pitch it out.
I think I must have one of the last remaining copies of this rare book. Almost 40 years old, I stumbled on it while cleaning the other day, seeing at last with my own eyes a thing of legend. At the dinner table, I oft heard of the making of this collection of recipes – what a job it was to oversee and how much pride the wives felt in its completion. Holding it now, I was struck poignantly by the absence of its authors from the scene. No longer card bearing faculty wives, they are widows or caregivers to aged retirees or elderly divorcees or simply deceased.
The same day, my friend stopped by. His dad is dying. They don’t expect him to survive the month. His life’s work is being sold off for cheap in a mostly abandoned warehouse. I want to pay him respects before the end, but I have been warned that he is pugilistic, disoriented, and easily agitated. I have this insight: the old guard is passing on. What hits me harder is that all their work, all their hopes and dreams, it ends up in a box.
This puts into perspective my cleaning. It makes me consider the question: what is my real work? Is it taking the kids on all the summer to-do’s I had planned out and mostly accomplished? Is it “finishing” the laundry, at least for today? Is it my “work” work that I care about keenly and seem increasingly to struggle to do with the scope and purpose I can imagine? Is it sitting with my colleague, when we meet to program plan, while she tells me about her health and family and her struggle to find meaning in it all? I know it all ends up in box, even it if has a forty-some-odd decade shelf life.
So, I sat with this. In a clean house. With a crusty cookbook in my lap. Wondering, how do I honor them, him, myself? And, a word came to my mind like a revelation, lightening bright and loud, crackling with energy and warning, ripping through my atmospheric malaise with stunning force. REALIZE.
- Realize that time is passing – go visit my friend, even if he screams at me and doesn’t recognize my face.
- Realize the work I want to do simply, efficiently, diligently.
- Realize the achievements in our midst, however small, however great.
- Realize that all these, theirs and mine, will be ineluctably, inevitably covered with dust.
- Realize there is laundry to do.
- Realize it is awesome when it is done, at least for today.
- Realize my mother’s birthday is later this week and I need pull a gathering together for her!
As that last realization dawned on me, I found myself in a store selecting party supplies and groceries. To my shock, I noticed the store was filled with Halloween decorations. The merchandise betrayed the seasons, catapulting me even further toward the urgency of realization. I found myself confirmed in my spirit rather than alarmed by it. So, this autumn, I will do these things: I will cook from the cookbook to honor the dead, and I will visit a friend to honor the living. I will celebrate Halloween, and I will also celebrate anytime I “finish” the laundry. I will work, especially with my colleagues, and especially when they are struggling to find meaning in their work. And, I will do my own “work” work, because it matters, even if it’s destined for dusty shelves, half-bored in-laws, cheap sales, and the rest-in box.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.