Legend has it that a woman in our church bakes muffins every morning. I write “legend” because it’s been years since I heard she does this, and I only heard it once. It was during a weekly bible study for women held at the church I attend, when this woman, I’m going to call her Maggie, placed fresh muffins neatly lined in a Longaburger basket on the table.
“Oh, Maggie. What did you do?” one woman chided as she reached for a muffin.
“I can’t believe you make these every day,” another one said, peeling back the paper liner and breaking the muffin so steam floated up and I smelled nutmeg.
Maggie told them in her quiet, humble way, that it’s not that big a deal. The base is the same: flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. The liquid stays constant, too: eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted butter. Everything else you make up – throw in chopped fresh cranberries, chocolate chips, walnuts if you like, though they’re best if you roast them for a few minutes beforehand.
I loved listening to Maggie. She is slow to speak but every word is drenched in a soothing, subtle strength, and listening to her is like eating the most delicious, hearty meal. But it’s a meal that makes you want to do something: run a race, feed the poor, learn to knit, tend to the sick.
About twenty years ago, on a January afternoon Maggie’s son, I will call him Peter, was in a car with a few friends heading toward Chicago from Grand Rapids, Michigan. The route they took is a route that cuts off part of the highway driving and tolls, and instead of four lanes, there are two: one going, one coming. Driving this route towards the south bend of Lake Michigan in January can be treacherous. For Peter and his friends, it proved to be life-altering. They’d hit a truck. Or maybe it was that a truck hit them. I don’t remember, but today, Peter sits in the back of our church in a reclined wheel chair. He has suffered irreparable damage to his brain and spinal cord.
I haven’t attended Bible Study in years, so I don’t see Maggie as much as I used to. We pass the peace sometimes at church. Once, I stood next to her while we took communion. We’ve stood outside of the church and sipped coffee and discussed who knows what on a warm summer morning. I should know more about Maggie other than the fact that her son is deeply injured and she bakes muffins every morning, and I don’t understand why believing a woman I barely know bakes muffins every day has impacted me. What difference does it make? Still, I constantly wonder about Maggie standing in the kitchen every morning whisking eggs and stirring vanilla into batter while Peter sleeps, or sits with her, or watches TV, or whatever it is he does.
A few weekends ago, I went to a funeral for a colleague. I will call her Jennifer. Jennifer’s daughter, a 27-year-old veterinarian, died on Good Friday. She crashed into a tree driving home for Easter.
I know nothing about Jennifer except that she teaches math, she has a bit of a Southern twang, and the neighborhood she lives in has the best ice-cream cone shop in the DC area. And now I know her daughter is dead.
What I don’t know is how Jennifer is going to get through this. I teach in a Christian school and the faculty prays for Jennifer. They ask God to get her through five minutes. Then an hour. They ask that the hour turns into a week, and I listen and pray along, but what I want to cry out to God is, “HOW? HOW DOES A MOTHER GET THROUGH THIS? SHOW ME THE STEPS!”
I don’t know how to get through sorrow. I just know how to feel it, and I felt it the day of Jennifer’s daughter’s funeral. Sorrow pressed on my chest like a brick. It churned in my stomach, oozed out of my eyes and dripped off my chin. I hate feeling sorrow. I fight it. I run away from it.
As soon as the funeral ended, I ran. I trotted down the steps of the church, slammed my car door shut, and sped home; every time I started to cry again I turned the radio up louder.
When I got home, I pulled out the muffin tins.
Blueberry muffins are my favorite. I always sprinkle a little sugar on the tops just before baking, and in the fall I toss a dash of cinnamon in the batter because my thinking is anything that goes in the oven September-November ought to have cinnamon in it.
I was still in my heels and dress clothes, and my hands shook as I lined muffin tins with paper cups, cracked and whisked eggs, and watched the brown of the vanilla swirl itself into the mixture that I stirred with a wooden spoon.
Just a little vanilla should go into the batter. Too much makes the muffins taste like the color pink, but if you use the right amount, it’ll make the other flavors richer: the soft sting of cinnamon, the sour thickness in the combination of the butter and the buttermilk, the tang of the crushed blueberries.
The blueberries go in last. Just fold them in but make sure you incorporate them in throughout the batter. They won’t move easily because the batter will be thick. You’ll have to be patient as you wade and stir. It is slow work. My arm hurts during this part, and I’m always surprised because I bake quite a bit. You’d think I’d have the strength now for this sort of work.
I think of Maggie as I stir. I wondered what to say to Jennifer when I see her in school. I try not to cry into the bowl and I hope that the blueberries get mixed up properly so that nobody takes a bite and ends up with nothing.