Monthly Archives: October 2015

Commonplace Thoughts of Residual Welshman: Halloween, Soul Cakes, and Parody

— Why, how know you that I am in love?

— Marry, by these special marks: first, you have
learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms,
like a malecontent; to relish a love-song, like a
robin-redbreast; to walk alone, like one that had
the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had
lost his A B C; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to
speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas.
Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, ii.1

This is, quite literally, a Halloween blog since this evening is Halloween. It is in the recipe series, which as a regular feature will end just after Thanksgiving, though the blog may include a few Christmas holiday recipes, too, and possibly, given the polyethnic background of its author, a Hanukkah recipe, as well.

But today’s recipe shall, after all, befit Halloween, as this is an old holiday, alluded to even in the quote from Shakespeare cited above. Like Christmas Eve, which is not the evening of Christmas day but the evening before Christmas day, thus All Hallows Eve, of which Halloween is merely a contraction, is not the night of All Hallows’ (=Saints’) Day, but the night before. And, because this (no doubt syncretized) Christian holiday is the one that looks back primarily upon the dead, it is associated with every possible view of dead folks, including the popular ideas about zombies, ghosts, fairies, and phantasms. As to the autheticity of real fairies or real ghosts, well, you can see some other blogs, such as those about fairies and hobs, the ghost of New Hope, or eve the hungry and quixotic ghost of Sulmona. Those accounts aply befit today’s occasion.

Halloween, as I was saying looks back: Christmas, like Pentecost, looks to the very present idea of God incarnate. Easter obviously looks forward to resurrection. But I leave this cursory present-past-future schematization of the Christian calendar aside. Instead I turn to what Halloween has become: a parody. This is not a bad thing, as parodies are often funny, which is why children in particular enjoy Halloween so much. And they like the treats.

The idea of trick or treating derives most likely from the European fifteenth-century (and later) custom of “souling,” which involved the baking and sharing of soul cakes (the original “soul food”). The cakes were an expression of thanks for prayers for the dead, which, presumably corrupted by the natural selfish inclinations of humankind (in this case, the English and the Irish), swiftly degenerated into a demand for a cake in exchange for the souls of the dead (or at least a prayer for them).[1] The costumes were representations, therefore, of the dead—they were thus originally all ghosts, and the infamous seasonal jack-o-lantern pumpkin face was meant to represent the face of a ghost.[2]

Perhaps the oddest "political" t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.
Perhaps the oddest “political” t-shirt ever. For a less frightening t-shirt, see below.

While nowadays a jack-o-lantern can be carved as a frightening work of art to represent a popular figure and even wind up on t-shirts, pumpkins were originally but crudely carved, and thus a bit frightening.

The idea of the candlelight in the pumpkin was to offer illuminations for the dead whereby to guide them on their journey after death.[3] Are such lights today meant to offer a guide for the living? The prospect may be as frightening to some—and I don’t mean because jack-o-lanterns are apparently responsible for global warming—as the idea of the jack-o-lantern must have been in medieval times.

A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?
A modern-day jack-o-lantern: frightening or funny?

Which brings us back to the essential idea, as I was saying at the outset, that Halloween is a parody, and that’s why kids love it so. Thus was I thinking; and then there occurred to me one possible reason why adults nowadays seem to be liking it more and more, too. Perhaps it is because we ever seek more parody in our lives. And then I wondered why we crave parody, why the snarkier the better seems to be the trend now in American humor, American politics, and America in general.

Janet sporting a Curious Autobiography T-shirt
A great present for the holidays. All proceeds go to charity.


Before you start thinking my view is simply archaic, consider this. If you are old enough to recall the 1980s, you must surely realize—one can easily see it from watching re-runs on the cable re-run channel—that pervasive snarkiness is something really new. And the reason I think that is so, is because American life has become a parody of itself. We are living in a parody of what was once the norm. Our new normal (which is swiftly becoming the new “norml”) is an America that our grandparents (at least my grandparents) would not have recognized, were they alive today. They would be appalled at the level of sensuality/sexual innuendo/bad words on television. They wouldn’t understand the new world order of politically correct speech. They would be confused as to why a football coach could be fired for saying a prayer. They wouldn’t understand why a baker had to bake a cake or face the possibility of paying $150,000 in fines. In other words, they would see today a parody of America rather than the America that had liberated Europe and defeated the Axis powers in the Second World War, the war they lived and worried and prayed through, and had subsequently stood for democracy against the USSR, sometimes virtually alone,[4] in a world that often refused to welcome the democratic form of government, imperfect yes, yet inasmuch as it represents all constituents, optimal. A world where Halloween was primarily a children’s holiday, a world in which archaic hymns of the ancient creeds of the church were still taken seriously.

Charlie Brown Great PumpkinIf the last paragraph sounds too Chestertonian, keep in mind that Halloween is the holiday that looks back, and that’s what the preceding paragraph does. But now, let’s close by looking for a recipe. It’s a simple one that gives us a taste of bygone Halloweens, for it is simply the Halloween cakes (soul cakes?) of Elaine Jakes. Some are ghosts, some jack-o-lanterns. She never used a cookie cutter for them, so they were always sort of clumpy and lumpy (as depicted below). She used food coloring for the toppings, but our recipe avoids that because nowadays so many folks have allergic reactions to them (and anyhow they’re not good for you). So, if you like baking cookies, enjoy. And enjoy the parody that Halloween affords, even if it is a reminder to you of the parody of our own modern days. Maybe, like children, we will eventually outgrow, to some extent, the parody of our modern times. Yet, even if we don’t, perhaps, if only indirectly and imprecisely, we can find personal spiritual solace in this dark world and wide, discovering our own burning candles to guide our souls on the way, no matter whose face winds up on the great American pumpkin. Now that’s a parody that’s worth recalling this Halloween, the Great Pumpkin. Thank you for your legacy, Charles Schultz.

Elaine's Halloween Cookies

[1] Margo DeMello, Faces Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Human Face (Santa Barbara, 2012), 167.

[2] N. Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (Oxford, 2002), 37f.

[3] J. Santino (ed.), Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life (Knoxville, 1994), 95f.

[4] Coates, ed., The Oxford Companion to American Politics (Oxford, 2012), 289.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Human Trafficking vs. Human Homing Ping

Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.

That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.

Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.

That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.

But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.

Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.

Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”

“Me neither,” she responded. “I had …”

“Kids that age should be playing or going to school,” I interrupted, barely able to restrain myself. “It is wrong for a little kid to have to work forty plus hours per week in a factory.”

“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”

boy with trash“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”

He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.

“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”

“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”

“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”

Muckraker photo
Cover of 1901 magazine which published articles by muckrakers.

“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”

He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”

I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.

“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”child in sweatshop“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.

Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.

As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.

My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.

Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?

And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.

Fight club passNo, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.

Human Being Recipe child working hands


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Canon and the Cheesecake

The Doryphorus of Polyclitus
The Doryphorus of Polyclitus

In order to ponder the theoretical work on art entitled Canon by the fifth-century personality Polyclitus, Elaine Jakes, having recently visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided to have a meeting of a few minds. Three of Elaine’s friends, members of the fringe of the New Hope intellegentsia were to be invited to consider Polyclitus’ sense of proportionality, evidenced in his work of the high-classical period of ancient art. They would ruminate on his famous Doryphorus, reflecting on its canonical attributes, as his Canon is itself lost. At this event—a tea party, for Elaine loved tea parties—a certain kind of cheesecake was served, consisting of a combination of recipes. One of these Elaine had learned, even as a child, at her mother’s apron strings; the other she had deduced from being invited to try the cheesecake served at an upscale restaurant in Philadelphia at which she in fact never dined, when she had lived there in 1964, five years prior to the tea party in question.

That restaurant, now shuttered, was called Bookbinder’s, founded in the late nineteenth century by a Dutch immigrant by the name of Samuel Bookbinder. Bookbinder was a man of irony. Though he was a Jew, his restaurant specialized in lobster and clams, neither of which should ever be on any truly Kosher menu. Perhaps it is for this reason that Elaine, who was, when she lived in Philadelphia, practicing a kind of quasi-Kosher Judaism (i.e. un-Kosher inasmuch as she was not herself born Jewish but now somewhat practiced Judaism, yet Kosher in so far as she at least tried not to eat pork) delighted in the idea of Bookbinder’s, if not the restaurant itself.

Sinatra on VF cover copyEven though Frank Sinatra was a regular at Bookbinder’s with a private booth there, and thus Elaine, like anyone else, would have loved to see that singer trying unsuccessfully to eat a well-buttered lobster, Elaine’s sole interest in the restaurant had to do with its cheesecake. Although she never actually entered the restaurant proper, had she been able to, she likely would have enjoyed sitting in Sinatra’s very seat, were the singer not present. Yet, too, if she had entered and had seen it, she would certainly not have approved of Bookbinder’s huge and very, very un-Kosher lobster tank, said by some to have been the largest in the world. That tank was, at any given time, the central display of the lobby of Bookbinder’s, a watery final home to more than two hundred of those doomed crustaceans.Lobsters

None of this did Elaine know, or if she did, it neither piqued her interest nor kindled her usual animal-friendly ire. Rather, as we have already noted, she was concerned with the restaurant’s remarkably tasty cheesecake, principally because the Welsh cheese cakes, to which she was accustomed and of which she had time and again as a child assisted in the making, is, like so many things Welsh, spurious, and this troubled her not a little when she was herself but little.

Nutritional mendacity among the Welsh is not unusual. It is common knowledge that they purloined from the Cornish their principal lunchtime dish, the pasty (rhyming with “nasty,” not “tasty”) sticking to one’s ribs in a manner quite different from its near homograph (cf. Curious Autobiography, 171). Further examples abound: Welsh plum pudding, my personal favorite, consists of neither plums nor pudding—but that recipe I will save for Christmas time. Add to this that even the legendary and most-beloved Welsh cakes (also known as Welsh cookies) are in fact neither cakes nor cookies; rather, they are something like petite, rotund, raisin-laced tortillas; but more on those near Christmas time, as well. Finally, there is the notorious Welsh cheese cakes, which, though truly Welsh is also neither of the latter, once duly separated, two words, for it is neither cheese nor cake. And while Elaine had, through the course of her life, let the misnomer Welsh cookies slide, and she was oddly never vexed by Welsh plum pudding, she found herself troubled beyond words by the Welsh cheese cakes that her mother joyed to make during the cold upstate Pennsylvania winters. Such  cheese cakes (for they came individually like cookies and more than one would be served at a time), quite unlike the singular New York style (or even Bookbinder’s style) cheesecake, were always, in the Jakes household, served with tea.

Yet as an adult, Elaine rarely made true Welsh cheese cakes, especially because she had befriended a woman named Scottie in south Philadelphia’s Italian Market in the fall of 1964 when they both happened to be shopping there, Elaine for prosciutto, which she had not yet realized was not Kosher, and Scottie for ricotta to mix with cream cheese for her secret cheesecake recipe. As it turned out, Scottie was, at that time, the sole cheesecake baker for Bookbinder’s. With Scottie’s help, Elaine soon found herself on a personal quest to put the cheese back into Welsh cheese cake.

Scottie was immediately appealing to Elaine on a number of levels: first, she was from Scotland, whose denizens more than any of the others of the British Isles are the most like the Welsh. They are, as it were, the more logical cousins of the Welsh, something like the Milanese are to Neapolitans. Further, Scottie was a nickname for Siubhan, a perfectly good Scottish name (meaning “a woman of praise”) but not one that even in the cosmopolitan 1960s was intelligible to most Americans. Thus, Siubhan, after transplanting herself to the United States to escape her failed marriage, went by Scottie, and Elaine knew her only as that. Despite their friendship, Elaine had mentally misplaced her last name, remembering only that it started with a Mc- or Mac-. But she knew that cheesecake—that is Bookbinder’s cheesecake—because she was often at Scottie McSomething’s flat to assist Scottie, simply sampling a sliver of the savory sweet before the real cheesecakes were delivered to Bookbinders. Scottie undertook this delivery day in and day out at 3:00 p.m. and Elaine would, even with her five-year-old child (c’est moi) in tow, often help Scottie deliver the cakes.

That day, then, the one we set out to talk about, which involved Polyclitus’ Canon, was the day, some five years later, after Elaine had moved to New Hope, PA, that she first served in public “Welsh” cheese cake made with actual cheese. To make the cakes, she combined Scottie’s secret recipe, as best as she could recall it, with her mother’s spuriously Welsh cheese cake recipe. The result was perhaps not as good with tea as truly spuriously Welsh cheese cakes, whose dry and flakey texture works rather well with the hot wet substance. Nevertheless, all the guests attested to the fact that the new Welsh cheesecakes—for she served them as individual treats, rather than cut from a wheel, as was Bookbinder’s—were in and of themselves truly delicious.

And this is how Elaine’s spurious Welsh corrective treat came into being. It preserved an element of the original Welsh because Elaine added her fruit on the inside, which is laid out below one of the attached recipes. The first of them is the Welsh cheese cakes of Elaine’s mother, Blanche Evans Jakes. The second is Elaine’s adaptation of the Bookbinder recipe that she garnered from Scottie.

Elaine’s new concoction was not only praised, but itself provoked, as she had hoped, a thoroughgoing discussion of the concept of the canon between the three guests of her tea party. These were Toni Pacino, voluptuous and then still married to famous jeweler and careful craftsman Fred Pacino, the “artist in residence,” as he sometimes called himself, of New Hope’s Pacino Fine Handcrafted Jewelry. The second was Ned “Super Jew” Tannenbaum, an admittedly odd name for a Jew (particularly someone who styled himself in nearly every conversation as a “Super Jew,” often saying self-deprecatingly, “But I’m just a Super Jew, so what do I know?”). Yet one never knew why this tall, even wispy, floppy-haired, erstwhile, retired-quite-early professor of literature (apparently all literature, as no one could determine what his particular specialty was), who had taught at no-one-knew-which-or-where-or-when university called himself “Super Jew.” Finally, the third invitee was, of course, Leni Fontaine, local artist and spiritual adviser, to whom an entire chapter of the Curious Autobiography is dedicated.

Following the guidelines that Elaine had laid out, they each took turns discussing the ideas of the canon of Greek classical proportionality as they gazed upon the postcard of the Doryphorus that Elaine had bought in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bookstore,. Two rounds of postcard gazing and tea bibbing produced an increasingly rich discussion of art and soon, for Ned, literature, but it finally returned, appropriately, to the cheesecake. “You know, Elaine,” Leni said, “This cheesecake enjoys the kind of proportionality and flavorful dimension one sees in Polyclitus’ work. Like the Doryphorus, it is balanced, even nuanced, and, like the contraposto pose, shifts its flavor back and forth within your mouth.”

“And it has body, and makes my mouth water … for a hunk of man,” piped in Toni, though her thoughts seemed to be far more fixated on the well-cut body of the handsome Doryphorus (and men in general) than on the tea cakes.

“No, the cheesecake is like literature,” Ned said. “It’s rich and complex, and will not soon be forgotten.”

tea setThough the conversation thence descended to ephemeral discourse and trivialities, the day was great for Elaine: she had, through a mere tea party, provoked the kind of intellectual discussion she had hoped, and she had not only aligned her own baking with Polyclitus’ canon, but had restored to Wales the cheese that its cheesecake had hitherto, if not merited, perhaps always desired. If, in the end, the only thing spurious about Elaine’s Welsh cheesecake is that, in fact, it is no longer truly Welsh, at least it can still claim ultimately to be Scottish.

Welsh cheese cakes

Elaine's cheesecake

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman, “Recipes for Life: Paradise”

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.

Mickey Musgrove
Mickey Musgrove

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.[1]

Rev. Griffith
Rev. Hugh Griffith

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.

Wyoming Valley
Wyoming Valley

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.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

“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.

Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann
Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann

“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.”

three bean saladAt 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.

Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii
Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii

“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)

Chicken Leek Prune Pie





[1] The view from here.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Cats, Dogs and People

dog and catA year or so ago researchers at the University of California at San Diego announced the results of an important study, the culmination of months of research, that established that dogs get jealous. “How odd,” I then thought to myself, “those behavioral scientists must never have owned their own dogs.”

Ben and Hilda
An example of a dog and owner with similar personalities.

I say this because anyone who has ever owned a dog already knew the results of that inquiry, and certainly does not need a scientific study to prove it: dogs do indeed get jealous. Another study by Professor Coren of the University of British Columbia has suggested that people tend to choose dogs based on their own personality. In a piece of popular writing directed toward a general audience, Professor Coren touches on his own research and, even more valuably, summarizes an important Hungarian/Austrian report that suggests that dogs often seem to share personality traits with their owners. At this point, if you own a dog, you are likely to pause, and say, is that how I seem to the world? Further, at this point, I’m sorry to tell the answer just may be yes. (And, if you really want to know, ask your spouse or your closest confidant.)

I needn’t say it, but cats are different than dogs. Well, they are sometimes. Let’s start with a superbly interesting exception, Tara, Jeremy’s pet cat. The reporter in this interview interestingly and amusingly asks Erica, Jeremy’s mother, whether or not Tara has a “lion complex.” Yet “Tara the Lionhearted” cat, saving Jeremy the child from “Hannibal ‘Baby Nibbler’ Lecter” dog, is perhaps the exception to the rule.

The cats that I have known and have had—I here tip my hat to our dearly departed Italian cats Piazza and Lorenzo, and the French Simone—interesting personalities. Cats seem to lose interest in playing with you or in many cases even being petted, and certainly want to act as they wish, quite individually, and in any case not as you may want them to. They are funny in that way, and they seem to tolerate their owners or their owners’ family members, as if the family were intruding on their territory. And while both dogs and cats expect to be fed at some point, the cat is often the most clear and articulate when it comes to asking for his or her food. The dog will often wait, hoping for a table snack for an appetizer. Thus, the dog often seems to be humanlike, wants really to be a part of the family, while the cat regards the family as a necessary social construct, as you might consider the idea of attending your neighbor’s child’s Bar Mitzvah or first communion, finding the warm buckle of your airplane seatbelt only after your seatmate has been sitting on it for five minutes, or in extreme cases, the local sewage treatment plant. Add to this, of course, the matter of the euphemistically entitled kitty litter that the cat completely takes for granted that you will dutifully change, holding your breath, week in and week out.

I will not speak here about the personality differences between dog owners and cat owners. The same Dr. Coren has done so eloquently, again summarizing scholarly studies that would likely be dry reading without his popular-market intervention. I will, however speak about the third aspect of this blog, people. For whether we are pet owners or not, whether we prefer dogs, cats, or horses, or whether we simply long for the Platonic form of an animal and not the animal itself, we are so markedly different from them—even rather intelligent animals—that it is worth a moment or two to point out how it is that we are different, that though biologists may call us animals—and we are mammalian—we are not really animals. For better or worse, we are ourselves quite dissimilar. We control our wills in ways that animals simply do not.

wooly monkeyNow at this point anyone who has read the Curious Autobiography and knows the story of Betsy, my sister, who was a monkey, specifically a cross-dressing monkey, may say, “Your own book disproves this: Betsy clearly exercised her will, taking a bath, watching a soap opera, swinging on a ceiling fan. Well, yes, it certainly seemed at the time that my sister, as my childhood self referred to her (and as I sometimes still do), Betsy, had a will of her own. She was the “strong-willed” monkey, so strong-willed that Elaine Jakes, who by the way loved both cats and dogs, decided to deposit her at the Philadelphia Zoo. Yes, it was traumatic to wave good-bye to my sister in the parking lot of the Philadelphia Zoo, but I got over that when I learned what a good time she was having with the other monkeys. If you want to know of her escapades, you will have to read pages 91–98 in The Curious Autobiography.

But to return to people. We are different from animals in frightening ways. This week, we again, sadly and terribly, learned how. In Oregon, a young man who owned some fire arms singled out followers of a particular religious group on a college campus and executed them. He exercised his will in a way that appalled and shocked us all, startling even his own father. This past summer, we read over and over of people being executed in Iraq or Nigeria or elsewhere again, quite often those whose religious views were not acceptable to their slayers. All of these crimes against human beings cause the horrific destruction of the ancient relics of Palmyra in Syria to pale in comparison. The former evil acts seek to take away the human present, the latter the record of humanity in ages bygone ages. All are crimes specifically against human beings, whether living, dead, or yet to come. So, while we are capable of better, we often find ourselves doing the worst.

In a playful but telling moment in his text, the ancient poet Ovid writes, “I see better things, and I approve; I follow after worse things” (Metamorphoses 7.20f). Speaking of his outlook on life well after his famous trip toward Damascus, St. Paul puts it this way, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do; but what I hate to do, I do … although I want to do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom. 7:15, 21; 24). He offers a solution, a solution that has gotten people killed from Oregon to Adamawa to Damascus itself, just after he cries out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But the answer to this question is something that we must all discover on our own.

Narcissus looks at his reflection. Fresco from the House of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii

Where does this leave us? Are animals better off because they have no religion? Well, they do have a religion of sorts. Your dog worships you. I’m sure that one of these days there will be an arguably unnecessary canine study to confirm as much. Cats, well, they don’t. I think they’re a bit narcissistic and there’s a chance that, like Narcissus they actually worship themselves, relegating their owner’s voice to that of a mere echo in a thicket. And like Echo’s affection for the object of her desire, for some of us, our love of cats may even cause us to worship them. But I leave that aside.

No, I don’t believe that we are better off without God. But we would do well not to fashion God in the form of a pit bull or a cat or, worse yet, ourselves. Rather, it would be best to start not with self-pity for our estate in a fallen world or with self-love, as if we were superior to those who wreak havoc in the world around us. My hope for myself is to participate in, even embrace, this world’s suffering, and so to learn to live sacrificially not just for my cat or my dog, but for people. This idea is not original with me. My views ultimately derive from a book by Dietrich Bonhoffer that I read when I was quite a young man; the central tenets of that book never left me. Thus, I commend to your thought and my own the example of others who have put into practice Bonhoeffer’s counsel, whose suffering and sacrifice have changed this sad world for the better. Though they are no longer with us, their actions and ideas, and perhaps our own, will continue to do so, making the world better for cats, dogs, and people.

The Pietá of Michaelangelo