IT’S THIS PAST August, and it’s my birthday, and the incoming voicemails are, as they have been for some time, inexplicably delayed. Today seems to be the day to consult the oracle: “How to fix …” The answer comes from the ether immediately: too much stuff from the past. Some of the old ones must be deleted.
The one at the very bottom of the voicemail well is from my birthday eight entire years ago. It has been patiently waiting. It is from my father, also an August baby, who would always call early in the morning on my birthday, and sometimes I would let it go to voicemail even if I was, unusually, already awake, because I knew he would sing, low and maybe comically fast in the middle, one verse of the birthday song. Only he ever called me Beth, or sometimes Bethy, if the need for an extra syllable should arise.
Today is the day, finally, it seems: I am ready to listen, again. I want to hear! I listen and I laugh and then cry a little bit with mostly joy. What a world, with voices from the great beyond in the palm of your hand, carried with you, year after year!
The second-to-last one is from Dad, too, from an ordinary day now also long gone. In it, it turns out, he talks about maybe the most mundane thing imaginable: Could I, while my chili is burbling, come help my mother unroll a new carpet? He is already ill, for otherwise, unquestionably, he would do this himself, which breaks my heart for an endless moment.
But, then: chili. I do not remember this day or this chili whatsoever, but I would’ve told him that I was working on getting my chili more right — right being a version approaching the lambent memory of eating chili with Saltine crackers for lunch at my grandmother’s little ranch house in the middle of a day of helping with her Angus cattle, a thing that happened so many times, none and every one of them special. My grandmother was kind of a terrible cook. The chili was canned, and given how she would have fared making it on her own, it was, all things considered, a very happy circumstance at her table — just-right salty, very faintly spicy, studded with bits of ground beef. I must’ve discussed this strange ambition of re-creating the taste of canned chili, idealized through the prism of time, with my father. He absolutely would’ve understood.
Thanks, phone! And, then, there, also in the palm of my hand, is a poem that the lovely Whitney Ricketts has posted to the world. She lost her miracle of a mother also, now, some while ago, and she is a taker-of-time with grief, too, and an exceptionally skilled one — the poems she finds and shares through the years press, gently, on the hurt to see how much it hurts still while also slowly helping, just like the passage of time. This poem is about what we remember about the moments we had with those we’ve lost — the birthdays, the vacations, the diagnoses, the endings, the points celebratorily high and devastatingly low — while all the ordinary days, the ones you wish so fervently to have again in endless succession, slip away.
Today, in the fall, my phone and I messaged Whitney to please look for the poem. The one she sent — “I think this one???” — wasn’t the one but, absurdly and magically, it was also one as perfect or maybe more so than the other one, with August and beans and a grandmother and a father and a grave in it, and also a sandwich. “You can’t bring back the dead, / but you can have the words forgive and forget hold hands / as if they meant to spend a lifetime together. And you can be grateful …” This poem is called “You Can’t Have It All,” and it’s by Barbara Ras, and your phone will help you find it with alacrity and also hold on to it for later reading, or rereading, if need be.
I’m not deleting those voicemails — in fact, just in case you’re having the same issue, which my mom was, too, if you scroll all the way to the end of every one anyone’s ever left you, you’ll see “Deleted Messages,” and then just click on that and then you can permanently delete the ones you already thought you deleted, which should free up enough memory for all the others you want to keep.
Today is the day, it seems, to make some chili.
B.J.C.’s Remembered Ranch-Style Chili
Serves 4 for lunch — definitely double it for dinner or a crowd
This is a quick, easy, basic, really good chili — if you like, you certainly may cook it longer, adding a bit more water if it gets overly thick, and of course you can use dried beans if you’ve got the time and forethought. If you don’t have Lawry’s or Johnny’s seasoning salt (fun fact: Seattle chef Melissa Miranda swears by the latter), try substituting half garlic powder and half salt — it’ll all work out. Also, feel free to add more beans, and if you have extra breakfast sausage, that serves marvelously as some of the meat. This chili tastes like everything canned chili ever wanted to be. — Bethany Jean Clement
1 medium yellow onion
1 pound ground beef (preferably 80% lean)
1 pound ground pork (or substitute more beef)
1 tablespoon chili powder
About 1 teaspoon each ground cumin, paprika, ground oregano, garlic powder, and Johnny’s or Lawry’s seasoning salt
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes (fire-roasted are nice)
~3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 16-ounce can of beans — pinto, kidney or your choice
¼ cup masa flour
More kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cheddar cheese, sour cream, green onions, sliced radishes, Saltine crackers and/or tortilla chips, for serving
1. Dice and saute onion in a tablespoon of olive oil in a large stock pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sprinkling with salt and pepper.
2. When your onion is starting to soften, add meat and sprinkle with all your spices, kosher salt and cayenne. Brown over medium-high heat, chopping at it and stirring with your spoon to mix and crumble.
3. Once meat is nicely browned, add the can of tomatoes, a can of water and the tomato paste. Stir and bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce to low and simmer for about half an hour, stirring maybe every 10 minutes.
4. Drain and rinse your beans, then add them, stir and simmer for about 10 more minutes.
5. Stir the masa with ¼ cup water to make a slurry, and stir it in. Taste and amend spices as needed — you might want a bit more Johnny’s/Lawry’s or a pinch more cayenne (but go slow, a little at a time, tasting and stirring). Simmer for about 5 more minutes.
6. Serve topped with grated cheddar cheese, sour cream (organic, and lots of it, for extra richness), scissor-snipped green onions, maybe some sliced radishes, plus Saltine crackers and/or tortilla chips on the side (Juanita’s is the only brand of chips that lures me away from my Saltine memories, for what it’s worth).