When we drove up from Brooklyn to see the monastery, Sister Gertrude greeted us at the door. She exuded serenity. So naturally we bought it.
She had come to the monastery at age eighteen, and lived there from 1953 until the last day of 1998. She slept on a straw mat on an unheated cure porch. When we met her in 1998, there was not a line in her face. She was serene.
Religious devotion would do that for anyone, wouldn’t it? Apparently not. We met some of the other nuns. They were pleasant and likeable. But so far as I could tell from brief acquaintance, none were serene.
On my second encounter with Sister Gertrude, we were standing in the front-yard parking lot. I involuntarily began a rambling discourse on why Ann and I were compelled to buy the house and how I had been looking for a vocation my whole life and tried all kinds of ways of being and by some mystery owning the monastery seemed to be it – and on and on. It was quite an intimate conversation to have with someone I had only met a couple of times.
Something about her – serenity, I suppose – said, “You can talk to me. Any subject. I’ll listen. You can be who you are.”
I later met a Jewish couple who found the same thing in Sister Gertrude. They even found it in the Mass, which they sometimes attended. They sat on the back row, not participating, just soaking up something they needed.
Lately, Ann and I have been watching a BBC dramatization of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries. Father Brown is also serene. No matter what is going on around him, no matter what trial he faces, he is uncannily calm. I suppose everyone would like to be that way. Perhaps that’s why the Father Brown stories have been read for a hundred years.
Reverend Harding in Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles is another literary figure who charms with serenity. He adds a special fillip to it in that when he is tempted by fear or anger, he plays an imaginary cello and smiles. (He is portrayed masterfully by Donald Pleasance in a BBC presentation.) Reverend Harding has been enthralling readers for two hundred years.
I’ve tried to imagine to imagine being serene. I think I’d like it. I’ve prayed for it daily for years, joining with innumerable Anglicans around the world in the Collect for Peace; “Defend us…in all assaults of our enemies that we, surely trusting in thy defense, may not fear the power of any adversary.” So far, the result has been de minimis. (If I were to write my memoirs, I would use the title, Frequently Anxious, Rarely Satisfied, Always Restless.)
But then, just before Thanksgiving, it happened; I experienced the serenity I had so long sought. Not in the way I was expecting, and it didn’t last long, but I went to the mountaintop; I saw life as Sister Gertrude, Father Brown, and the Reverend Harding see it.
All it took was .5 mg of Xanax. I rolled into the noisy MRI tube with a smile on my face and slept right through the procedure. If the Almighty wanted to give me serenity, he would create a Xanax for daily use.
The spell wore off all too soon. I wish it hadn’t. Thanksgiving was approaching, and fourteen guests were coming to the monastery for dinner. I grew more anxious than usual, especially in regard to gravy.
I’m of the vegan culinary persuasion, though sometimes when I find myself within arm’s reach of Stilton or a Baby Ruth, I yield to temptation. Thanksgiving was not going to be like that. I planned – with malice aforethought and full-throttle mens rea – to stuff myself full of turkey (dark meat – the fattier part), dressing, buttery mashed potatoes, and a tsunami of giblet gravy.
Trouble was, I could hardly remember the last time I made giblet gravy. I do recall that what I made wasn’t nearly as good as what I grew up on. That’s a more forceful statement than it appears. My mother, while a person with many admirable qualities, was a C-minus/D-plus cook.
Ann, on the other hand, is a marvel in the kitchen. But I couldn’t trust her to make the gravy. She’s been a vegetarian since she was nineteen, and her pursuit of healthful eating is unrelenting; she would have produced some nutritionally sound substance that only looked like gravy. That would not do at all. Everyone knows that in its fullest realization, giblet gravy should be served in close proximity to an emergency room.
So I called my friend Jay, a master of all things kitchen and a recent graduate of a King Arthur Flour Company short course in bread making. The job didn’t scare him in the least.
During this little adventure, I learned that there are actually recipes for giblet gravy. In writing. That surprised me. A lot. Until a few weeks ago, I was sure that all that was required to make gravy was a woman of a certain age who would push pan drippings around with a whisk, add a little stock and flour – and voila. Not so.
I got hold of Jay and asked him what recipe he was planning to use. I wanted to have everything at stove side for him. “I mostly wing it,” he said. I told you he was a good cook. That was gravy talk of the highest order. He required of me only a quart of commercial chicken stock.
He drove up to the side door, a sort of freight entrance, carrying a big box of ingredients and paraphernalia. Then he made a second trip to his car. It didn’t seem like my idea of “winging it.”
Guests were to arrive in half an hour, I still had a lot to do, and my brush with serenity was but a memory. Consequently, I was too distracted to pay close attention to what all Jay brought or how he made the stuff. I did notice cumin seeds (who knew?). He used a mortar and pestle to reduce them to something smaller that seeds, larger than powder.
He also had a toque for him and a sous chef cap for me. I’d never seen one of the latter. I put it on proudly, but took care not to venture outside the house. It made me look like an imam, and I might have been mistaken for a terrorist.
Well, it pays to have friends, especially omnivore friends who know their way around a kitchen. The gravy was as good as I had hoped it would be. I enjoyed more than my share of it. And I ate turkey. I ate cheese. I ate pecan pie. (Butter and eggs are every bit as good as I recall.)
We sent guests home with the non-vegan leftovers, including the turkey carcass. (It’s not possible to make vegan turkey soup.) I’m back on the vegan wagon now. But I’m thankful for a day of eating like a real American.
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A change of tone here.
I’m sure I was not alone on Thanksgiving in thinking of the Middle East refugees. I addressed this topic in my Adirondack Daily Enterprise column. I was encouraged and delighted by the positive regard it generated. You can read it here.