We all have favorite local businesses. I believe the best are those where we almost forget that buying and selling have anything to do with it, where we exchange something meaningful and the money that changes hands merely supports that exchange. Sometimes I describe such places with words like atmosphere, service, or quality. But my new favorite, Maria Empanada, reminds me that the key is the inexplicable chemistry of love—not mushy sentiment, but the love we feel when we share with others the simple pleasures that give us joy.
Why is it that the humblest gifts always conjure the most priceless magic? My 20-something stepsister teaches at an inner-city school in L.A., so since I was limited on funds this Christmas, instead of sending her a personal gift, I sent a few basic school supplies. I had visited her third grade class last year, and I’ve led programs in underfunded urban classrooms over the years, so I’ve seen first-hand that low-income students rarely have sufficient supplies. Teachers often scrape money from meager salaries to provide some of what poor districts cannot.
I didn’t send much. Just some pencils, crayons, and drawing paper. But this week I received two texts from my sister. The first one simply made me smile:
Thank you so much for thinking of us! They all made beautiful cards for friends and family today.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
In keeping with our Route 66 theme, I have a less than highbrow goal in visiting the Art Institute of Chicago: I’m here to see that creepy icon of nostalgic Americana known as American Gothic. So I figure hitting the museum an hour before closing will give Steph and me plenty of time. We lose 15 minutes buying our tickets and navigating a vast maze brimming with more classic enticements. No problem. I do what I always do at museums: head straight to my must-see choices first, and don’t deviate until that task is finished.
I’m amused to learn that the artist’s models were his sister and his dentist.
American Gothic is more interesting than I expected. I planned to stand here, tongue firmly planted in cheek, and chuckle to myself while adding one more bit of kitsch to our Route 66 checklist. But in truth, Grant Wood’s painting is a work of real skill. Seeing the actual paint, I find myself appreciating the crease in the old man’s brow, the lock of hair slipping from his spinster daughter’s severe bun, the folds of his sleeve, the cameo at her throat. The description educates me to notice the houseplants arranged in the window behind the daughter as a symbol of her feminine domesticity, and to recognize the father’s pitchfork as a symbol of his masculine role as a worker of the field. I’m amused to learn that the artist’s models were his sister and his dentist.
My decision to leave and travel around the world with a 13-year-old was not impulsive but directed. At the time, I hardly realized the impact on everyone who was involved with this journey. The gift of telling the story from my current perspective is interesting in that so much more of it is understood.
I truly expected this painting to fall apart by now, but it’s fine.
The date was September 10, 1997, and I will never forget the morning my husband dropped our youngest daughter and myself off at the bus stop on our way to JFK airport and the world. I had never traveled by myself or been out of the country more than stepping over the Canadian border one time. But when you know you have to do something, courage finds a place in your heart. We left with too much stuff and started a process of getting rid of things in Chile that lasted all the way to Thailand. I was traveling with a portable wooden easel and 20 pounds of oil paints. I didn’t realize when I left how hard it would be to find mineral spirits when I didn’t understand the language. It was a constant challenge in each country that we went to, but we were eventually able to find it every time.