When I Was 11

I’d almost eclipsed my Pitfall high score on the Intellivision when my mom yelled up the stairs. We were leaving early for the 4th of July festivities at the local golf course, so I could partake in the pre-fireworks gladiator games, where my parents hoped I would meet a new best friend. Even a marginal friend would do, really.

I loved reading about the American Revolution, imagining myself an integral part of secret meetings in dark corners of low-ceilinged taverns. But I’d never been a fan of Independence Day at the golf course. While the sight of make-believe bombs bursting in air didn’t really bother me, I hated the punishing blasts of vibration and gunfire delivered a breath later. Those aggressive, deeply resonant punches to my gut made me cry when I was a little kid, even when my mom covered my ears with cupped hands. 

But I had just turned 11. Good conscience and reputation wouldn’t allow such coddling. I’d have to fight through the assault this year like a man.  
A boy even smaller than me approached the moment I walked into the event amphitheater between the well-trodden putting green and divot-ridden 1st fairway. My mono-lingual inability to decipher his intent necessitated a deal brokered by his dad, who told me his son was a very fast runner, but didn’t have many friends, so would I consider a proposition? 
I agreed to having my left leg tied with burlap strips to his son’s right leg, leaving me without my own leg to stand on, and requiring coordination across ethnic, linguistic, and cultural lines to even complete the three-legged race, let alone ensure victory.
I was intrigued by the kid’s competitive vibe, as well as the promise of his speed, which meant I might finally have a shot at some semblance of actual victory. 
We lined up with the other kids and waited for the whistle to blow, gesticulating last-minute plans for domination with our eyes and hands. We’d start with the middle leg, then our outside legs, until we found our groove, at which point we’d take off like a three-winged bat out of hell.
The whistle blew and we stayed true. We’d underestimated the brilliance of our plan, because all but two other teams tumbled to the fescue in their first steps. My cohort whispered Uno Dos Tres, which I understood from an early Sesame Street episode, and we took off, indeed, like a three-winged bat out of hell.
A lot went through my mind in those final 20 yards. Maybe this is what Phil Mahre was feeling in the poster on my wall, en route to winning Olympic gold in skiing. Maybe I really could be friends with this kid. Maybe I was going to finally win one.

And if I was going to win one, I was going to win one in dramatic fashion. Lucky observers would be talking about my heroic final effort for the rest of their lives, and the humiliation that had followed me these 20 days since the sleepwalking incident would be erased forever. 

Only one other team still survived, and they were falling behind in my peripheral vision. Convinced of victory, I knew that collapsing across the finish line would be the best scene to indelibly burn into spectators’ memories, even if there was no need to actually collapse. 

I’d seen enough World Cup matches with flopping Brazilians to know the drill. 

And so, a torso-length away from the finish line, I tripped over nothing at all. 

My forehead dug into the soft earth, a sure badge of honor I’d offer when taking the obligatory post-race victory photos. I looked up just as the other team rambled past us, shouting with surprised joy. My new-no-longer-friend looked at me with angry confusion, as if I’d microwaved a puppy.

I might as well have. I’d dragged us down a couple of feet short of the finish line.

Our dads rushed over and helped us to our feet, which was proving impossible to accomplish on our own, given our tangle of bound legs. I reluctantly accepted my second-place plastic trophy, which was essentially the last-place plastic trophy, since no other teams crossed the finish line, and trudged over to my waiting mom on the blanket.

The fireworks had just started when my dad offered an observation hinting at question. 

You made yourself fall.

The bombs started bursting in air.

And my mom didn’t try to cover my ears.


My mom used to make pancakes on Sunday mornings. Not long ago, I found her recipe in a drawer, typed on her old stationary, with Mrs. Woodard printed in fancy script at the top, next to the family’s address before I was born.

The recipe called for sourdough starter, which my mom had kept in the fridge for years. I think I remember her saying she used her Grandma Mitchell’s sourdough starter, because her Grandma was the most incredible cook she’d ever known. My mom’s eyes well with tears now whenever Grandma Mitchell’s name is mentioned… and if there’s one common thread to the blanket of our family story, woven by this motley crew of generations, it’s that Grandma Mitchell was the dearest, kindest, hardest-working person anyone had ever met. 

She was still alive when I was born, for awhile. I don’t remember her, but I’ve heard enough to gather that she probably wouldn’t have spent much time fighting over shadow politics on InstaTwittBook. She was too busy helping others, like making underwear for my aunt and mom from the burlap sacks that had once held potatoes destined for the giant kitchen kettles where she worked. She labored tirelessly as the head cook for the school district, but money was tight in Depression-Era California, and she had to make do.

My parents were in town last week, and I wanted to make those Sunday morning pancakes again. I hunted around online for a sourdough starter to use with my mom’s pancake recipe, commenting out loud about how I wish I still had Grandma Mitchell’s. I gave up my search when I realized that a sourdough starter would take a few days to get, well, sour, and fed my parents granola instead. Every link led to more ads than content, anyway.

My aunt drove over from Nevada to celebrate my mom’s birthday and drop off a few boxes of family relics. We spent an evening going through old photos and treasures like sewing scissors and rusted thimbles, last used by one Grandma Mitchell.

A small, nondescript box was nestled next to the sewing kit, but was only given a cursory glance before we started sorting through ancient mining claims, left behind by a great-uncle somewhere down the line.Humans like to explain everything, especially these days. We’re afraid of the mystery, of any process other than what we think we can control.But I can’t tell you why, a few hours after wishing out loud that I had something as a random as a sourdough starter recipe, I was sitting on my couch, with a small, nondescript box on my lap. Mildew rode the wafts of must, creeping over the faded yellow wooden sides, as I lifted the lid to find tattered pieces of paper with scribbled dates of 1929 and 1931.

And there, second to the last clipping from the bottom.Her recipe for sourdough starter.

I’m grateful to meet you again, Grandma Mitchell.Even through pancakes.

Well, especially.And welcome home.