Peggy Acott

Seeker of stories and beautiful ephemera.

“We are the gatherers, the shepherds, the farmers of stories. We wander widely and look for them and gather them and harvest them and share them as food...and if you are going to be good at it you must double your humility and triple your curiosity and quadruple your ability to listen.”

I have lived with these characters, off and on, for the past several years, and I am always glad to encounter them again when I sit down to spend time unraveling their story.

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One Dish at a Time

A story of family, forgiveness, and finding one’s place at the table

1.

Seattle, 2008

Bea stood in her pre-dawn kitchen. She breathed in the cool duskiness, still fragrant with traces of last night’s roasted squash and caramelized onions. She loved how the gradually illuminated window squares were reflected in the shiny surfaces of the pots hanging next to the stove, the rhythmic tick-tick-tick of the kitchen clock the only soundtrack to the opening scene of her morning.

The entire kitchen took on a pearlescent glow as the sky lightened in anticipation of the sun. The automated coffee maker dutifully sprung into action at its appointed time, breaking the spell of near silence with the gurgling of water followed by the welcoming smell of coffee.

Bea sighed, contented. She turned on the lights, took her white chef’s apron from its hook and tied it around her waist at the front, a habit from her brief tenure at culinary school over a decade ago. Pouring coffee into the large yellow mug she always used when she cooked, she leant back against the butcher block, her hands cradling the cup, staring out the window at the city starting to wake up on this Thursday morning. She considered what she had time to accomplish before getting ready for work, and decided to begin with a loaf of bread, much in the same way her grandmother had done every week for as long as she could remember.

Kneading the soft dough, pushing it with the heels of her hands across the smooth wooden surface of the butcher block, turning and folding, drawing it back and repeating, Bea felt enveloped by her body-memory of this familiar rhythm: Push, fold, turn, pull, repeat. A motion and cadence all of her body chimed in on without conscious direction, and that allowed her thoughts to wander. When she cooked she often thought about her Gramma Bea, her Polish Babcia for whom she had been named, who always said it was important to be grateful for simple daily gifts, for the life that one is given. Her grandmother seasoned many of her dishes with a generous sprinkling of gratitude, and instructed the younger Bea to do the same. While she cooked, she told stories of the French Resistance during the Second World War, of narrow escapes, of how it all had shaped and honed her desire to never take a day for granted.

This morning, Bea also thought about her mother while she worked the bread dough. Adriane was always insistent that it was okay to want more than just a good day, to aspire, to not always be satisfied with one’s lot in life. The younger Bea could see how her mother had chaffed and rebelled against what she likely saw as her own mother’s complacency and lack of ambition. But for all the prickliness Bea had sensed between the two matriarchs in her life, she also had seen the genuine fondness and bond between them. She had taken to heart the lessons she’d gleaned from both of them, even though at times she struggled with their contradictions. It was as though each woman influenced a different side of her own mind and personality.

Bea sighed. She missed both of them so much sometimes, felt their absence especially when she had need of their experience and wisdom.

Tucking the dough into a bowl and setting it in the warm oven for its first rise, Bea wiped the butcher block clean of flour, washed her hands and dried them on her apron. She poured another cup of coffee and opened the French doors out onto the deck, stepping out into the cool morning air. She didn’t think it was wrong to aim toward perfection, be it in a loaf of bread, a job, a marriage; one’s entire life, for that matter. Wasn’t it allowable to want more and better, to not rest in mere satisfaction? This internal discussion had been her early morning kitchen companion with increasing frequency over the past few weeks. Bea was used to insomnia, used to these early morning reveries alone in her kitchen. Welcomed them, even, for their peacefulness and quiet solace. But lately there was prickliness in her thoughts as she baked and made fresh pasta and casseroles for later in the day or week ahead.

Ever since Murphy had been promoted to Assistant Editor, and Felicia had given her two-week notice along with the announcement that she was striking out on her own as a freelance graphic designer, Bea had felt the mumblings of restlessness rise inside her. She tried out all the reasons why her job was a good one, why she should be happy to have it, reminding herself how skilled she was as a copy editor and how much everyone depended on her. She liked Murphy and was genuinely happy for him, but at the same time knew she was well qualified for the position she also had applied for, and that she had more seniority. She worried about Felicia, taking the risk of freelancing in an uncertain economy. But what else? Did she detect the slight whiff of envy? Bea shook her head to dismiss the thought.

She took the pork roast she’d bought the day before out of the refrigerator, rubbed it with salt and pepper, took her spool of butcher’s twine and started to expertly truss the meat, preparing it for the marinade of red wine, garlic, sage and juniper berries, where it would soak in the refrigerator until she got home from work. As she drew the string down and secured it with a series of knots in a familiar, continuous pattern, she remembered that most of her skills in knot tying had come from her father, not from culinary school. It was one of the small gifts he had bestowed in the few years they had together between his coming home from the Vietnam war and his driving away one morning never to return.

The ringing of the telephone in the living room jolted Bea from her reverie. Frowning, she waited to hear if whoever it was would leave a message; it was not her habit to pick up the phone whenever it beckoned, especially so early in the morning.

Beep.

“Hey Bea, it’s Alice. I’m coming to Seattle, and I need to talk with you about something. I’ll try again next time I have a decent signal. Bye.”

Click.

Bea stared in the direction from where her sister’s voice had suddenly materialized. Fritz, the orange tabby, rubbed against her shin in a plea to be fed, but she didn’t notice. Alice? It had been more than three years since she’d heard her sister’s voice, and here it suddenly landed, unbidden, as casually as though calling was a regular occurrence. No preamble, no explanation. She wants something. Bea was instantly suspicious and tasted the old resentments like chalk in her mouth, annoyed that her sister shattered the gentle peace of her morning. Suddenly angry, Bea found herself helplessly waiting for Alice’s next move, a position she had sworn she would never again let herself inhabit.

2.

North Dakota, 2008

Alice stood on the tiny metal passageway between train cars looking at the sun-washed blur of North Dakota grasslands, thinking about seeing Bea again and the reason for visiting her sister now, after all this time. She knew with a certain dread that lodged itself in her stomach that she was about to deal a serious blow to her sister’s otherwise well-ordered life. And what if it didn’t go as Daddy hoped it would? What if Bea refused to go to Hawaii to see him one last time before he died? Then Alice would get to be a double villain, delivering heart-shattering news to him, too. It just all felt so unfair.

Alice sat down carefully, her back against the metal wall, her knees pulled up and ankles crossed, the rushing wind from the train’s trajectory evaporating the sweat from her neck as she lifted the handful of short blond curls off her skin. God, I still hate the upper Midwest. Funny, she didn’t mind the humid season in Hawaii, but at least there was a lushness of green and brightly colored flowers as a reward for all that moist heat. Here it was just hot and muggy and seemingly empty. She wondered why she had decided to fly to Minneapolis and then turn around and take the train to Seattle. At the time she’d thought it was a good idea. She had told herself it would give her a chance to see the Minnesota countryside of her childhood, hah, like she really cared about that. Obviously it was nothing more than a self-directed ploy to postpone the upcoming conversation. But putting it off just made the tightly strung anticipation stretch out indefinitely, like the endless line of cattle fence that was rushing past. She had spent the last several hours (several days, if she was to be truthful) running over various scripts and monologues in her head of how she was going to approach the topic with Bea. Hell, I can’t just walk into her house and say “Hi! Guess what? Daddy’s alive after all, but not for long, and he wants to see you.” She groaned. She would have to find the right words for Bea. And most likely she would only have one chance to get it right.

Goddamn it Daddy – why did you have to put this on me? Why couldn’t you show up on Bea’s doorstep, instead? She is so much better with this kind of thing. Alice rubbed her temples against the headache that was beginning to take hold. Once she had gotten over the shock of him she couldn’t deny that she had been happy to see her father again, even though his cancer terrified her. She, who avoided all things having to do with sickness and mortality, who could not summon up the courage to visit her mother after the stroke until the week before she died. Alice knew Bea was furious with her, maybe even hated her. She felt an ugly, sticky sort of cowardice that she couldn’t admit to anyone. Well, now she was apparently going to have to grow up and act like an adult, like her mother and older sister had kept harping at her about, all those years.

Shit.

First HarvestAugust 4, 2017

Sometimes our actions align themselves naturally with the progression of the seasons.   Without intentional planning, we are aligned in sync with ancient markers of the year and its perpetual turning.

It is in part how we instinctively reach for salads and more fresh, raw food in the spring and summer, and likewise turn toward root vegetables and heavier, heartier foods in the fall and winter.

First harvest_onions_080117

This photograph is of this week’s harvest of onions at my community garden plot. I pulled them up and set them out to cure in the heat of August 1st – which happens to also be the first day of Lammas, also known as Lughnasadh or Lughnasa (pronounced LOO-ne-se): an ancient Celtic cross-quarter-day holiday that celebrates — you guessed it — the First Harvest. Traditionally this first harvest was usually wheat, and one of the traditional rituals of the holiday is baking bread with flour made from the first wheat of the season.

A friend of mine, upon seeing this picture of my successful onion crop, wished me “Happy Lammas!” I had completely lost track of the date, barely noticing that it was the first of August, my attention having for a while been taken up with a variety of day-to-day activities and obligations to schedule as well as some stressful canine caregiving.

Just the kinds of things that take me away from some simple, grounded ritual – when I likely need it the most (isn’t that how it often works?) – yet it has been the garden that has given me solace, so how fitting that I would, albeit not consciously, celebrate Lammas by harvesting a healthy crop of onions that will carry me into the colder months?

In Celtic mythology, it was the celebration of the wedding of the Sun God Lugh to the Earth Goddess, symbolic of the ripening of crops. As the harvest commenced, it was looked upon as the closing of summer and anticipation of fall. Harvest also meant starting to prepare for storing food to get through the colder months ahead.  But this holiday was a time for celebration and enjoying the fruits of the year’s labor.

Bonfires and feasting are, of course, always part of the celebration. 

Children and adults alike make “corn dollies” out of the long hollow stems of grain recently harvested (“corn” in modern English translates to “grain”), be it barley, wheat, rushes, oats; or the dried husks of corn. The dollies range from traditional to modern in design, simple to elaborate in execution; woven, braided or both, with or without other adornment. They are meant to be given as gifts, placed on home altars or above doorways, to thank the earth for her abundance and as symbols of fertility and good harvest.

corn dollies

photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Non-Fiction

Book

Online

Print

“Summer Fruit Tree Care” - Portland Outsider Magazine, Summer 2013

Fiction

Online

Savor: an Anthology, Vol. 1, 2010

Print

Photography

Online

Portland Nursery - (website), 2011-2014

Print

Cactus Heart Press, 2012, 2013

Zenger Farm, 2013

Voicecatcher, 2010, 2011

Depave, 2010

Protecting Earth's Land - Lerner Publications, 2008

Odds & Ends

Recipe Tester - Eat this Poem: - A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry, 2017

Photo: Stark Photography

I am a fifth-generation Oregonian. A county in the rolling grassland, northeastern part of the state is named after my great-great grandfather. On a road trip with my son, we went to the Morrow family cemetery plot and stood under the massive pair of juniper trees that my ancestor planted.

I grew up in Portland, in a house with lots of bookshelves and creative projects. My parents read, between them, things from nearly every category of fiction and non-fiction (except maybe romance and westerns, but I’m not even sure about that). My love of reading got an early and well-supported start.

One day when I was in fifth grade, my mother took a story I had written to my teacher, to get her opinion. The teacher noted the influence of all the Nancy Drew books I had read (probably all of them), but also said that I was, indeed, a very good writer. My mother, my first champion, probably wouldn’t have told me had the news from my teacher been bad, but since the critique was positive, she used it to encourage me to persevere. Thanks, Mom.

When I was twelve I bought my first camera. It was a square, gray plastic Kodak that cost all of eight dollars, and it was my introduction to a lifelong love of photography.

Fast forward. A bachelor’s degree in Art, and then several years spent working in offices, with creativity on the side. The classic liberal arts education story.

Through the years that followed - jobs and relationships and motherhood - writing, photography and painting continued to be my creative companions, sometimes publicly, always privately.

In 2008, I wrote what became the fall cover story for Edible Portland Magazine. That was a pivotal moment: I had become uncertain about myself as a writer, and getting this recognition propelled me with both feet into writing. While turning my attention more thoroughly to the page, I continued to take photographs, sometimes as a daily practice.

Submitting, getting rejections and the occasional acceptance. Repeat.

These days, with a creative practice, my eyes and ears are continuously opened to stories and fleeting moments of connection that weaves the world together.

It is good here.

Hello – thanks for stopping by! Want to ask a question? Leave a comment? Find out where to send a check? You can fill out the form or send me a direct email – either way, I promise to respond.

hello@peggyacott.com