A tribute to Marlene and Gino Mallia

Marlene and Gino Mallia of the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary 

Last January, I talked with Gino Mallia, husband of Marlene Mallia, President of the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society.
“I don’t know if you can afford the dues,” he said.
“How much are they?”
“Two dollars.”
I would’ve paid a higher price just to enter Milmine Hall, the Society’s meeting place. The two-story historic building has mystified me from the moment I laid eyes on it thirty years ago.
When I’d drive by in the dark, candlelight glowing in the lower windows, I’d think, just what do you do, Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society?
Who took such good care of the building and grounds? Someday, I would walk inside those red doors.
Meanwhile, work and family commitments led me away in a hundred different directions from Milmine Hall.
Yet, in the fulfillment of time and obligations, and by a series of divine interventions two summers ago, my husband and I arranged the removal of my father and our firstborn’s vaults from White Chapel to reside in Lakeville Cemetery.
March 21 at 1 p.m., I stepped inside Milmine Hall as a member of the Society.
A center aisle parted four long tables on each side of the room. Members gathered to the left. I knew the Mallias by Gino’s voice and his briefcase, splayed and stuffed with notebooks and papers.
           Marlene called the meeting to order. When she led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer, I knew I’d found another place in my community.


          The main items on the agenda included the April 18 spaghetti dinner and the Lakeville Cemetery Memorial service, the latter the most remarkable Memorial commemoration I’ve ever witnessed.           As I sat under the food tent with my beloved’s gravestones in view, their beautiful resting place struck a holy balance between the grief of death and the joy of life.
The communal meal and the program including music, poetry, and speakers from the Armed Services, required tireless planning and work by the Mallias, their family, and Society members.
           Marlene has served as President for the past twenty years. Under her direction, auxiliary members have restored fallen monuments, unearthed markers, erected a windmill, and built a gazebo.
           A well-groomed cemetery holds priority in the Society’s purpose.

        “We bought four new benches on sale at ACE’s in Oxford,” Gino reported in our October meeting.           
          Members know Gino’s not all work and no play. He’s predictably frisky when in his glory boiling pasta for the Auxiliary’s spaghetti dinners.
           “How much is a membership?” a guest asked.
           I knew what was coming.
“Well, I don’t know if you can afford it,” Gino said.
           “What are the dues?”
           “Two dollars.”

           I drove by Milmine Hall yesterday morning and saw Gino’s keys in the open door.
“Marlene’s scrubbing the roasters,” he said. “She needs them for her soup Halloween night.”
           “I make three different kinds. Potato, bean, and chili. Why don’t you join us?”
“Yeah,” said Gino, “with everyone else in Leonard.”
           Dear Reader, this is just a glimpse of what the Lakeville Cemetery Auxiliary Society does.

To love an onion and friend

I was unaware Robert Farrar Capon, the late Episcopal priest and author, published The Supper of the Lamb in 1967.  
            Furthermore, I knew nothing of Capon’s “culinary reflection” when I began housekeeping in 1970 with The Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I built my family table upon the recipes between those beloved and battered red-checkered covers.
Page 247 smells of Chess Pie. Dessert has always been my favorite course.
Long in my empty nest, my friend Carol gifted me The Supper of the Lamb for Christmas 2013.
“Let’s discuss the book next month,” she said. “I think you’ll love it.”
The author hooked me with his dedication page: “To my wife: the lightning behind all this thunder.”
In the preface, Capon states his cookbook “involves considerable fiddling around…and from it, you may learn things you never knew, or be confirmed in prejudices you have always held—or even come away with a new recipe or two.”
Who doesn’t love fiddling around, learning new things, tasting food preferences, and acquiring a new recipe?
I dove into Capon’s “Ingredients” for “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times” knowing the dish and left-overs would never see the light of my refrigerator.
Then came the onion in The First Session with the boom of a theologian and amateur cook who loves the world’s “textures, tastes, and smells, enough to keep us intrigued for more time than we have.”

An onion grower, I studied one of my crop, and indeed saw the architecture of a Russian church spire.
“You will note…that the onion is a thing, a being, just as you are. Savor that for a moment. You are constituents of a place in the highest sense of the word,” Capon says.
No, his isn’t the typical cookbook. I should’ve known from the jacket art, The Wedding Banquet by Peter Bruegel, courtesy of the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum.
You won’t find such food-human spirituality in the Betty Crocker CookbookGourmet, and Beard on Pasta. You won’t read such wisdom as, “A man can do worse than be poor. He can miss altogether the sight of the greatness of small things.”
An onion is more than an ingredient. It’s food we plant, weed, and harvest. We slice the elongated separations that form the globe.
“The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools…and the knife reigns supreme,” says Capon.
A diced onion simmers in my squash soup.

The Supper of the Lamb has redefined its genre, no longer limited to recipes and how to set a proper table. Capon speaks of affection for food, people, animals, place, and our Creator.
 “Indeed, the whole distinction between art and trash, between food and garbage, depends on the presence or absence of the loving eye,” Capon says.

We see this in Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Still Life with Onions, 1881.
Dear Reader, Carol and I talked long and lively about the beautiful layers of paper in an onion. We were glad to consider the greatness of food and what we love.
One another.

Please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exJDhkFJGg0 for a brief history of Renoir’s Still Life with Onions


Underwood/Beuter Family Reunion, August 2018, Grand Lake MI (Iris & Mel in middle)
My mother and father were opposites: she the eldest of eight children, he the youngest of nine.
Assigned to cooking family meals at age eleven, Mom cut her teeth on the cook stove. Dad grew into manhood with every bite of food handed to him.
Domestic to the bone, Mom could’ve cared less about sports. Dad watched the Tigers, sponsored a boys’ baseball team, and bowled in a league.
The glue that held my parents together for twenty-two years was their love for my sisters and me and our Appalachian kin.
I remember the lilt in Mom’s steps when she packed our suitcases for a family reunion. And nothing could please my father like bragging on the miles he shaved off our trip.
My dad took home movies of my mother passing around their babies to relatives on McCoy and O’Brien sides. Dad didn’t overlook one family member, even Old Shep, the collie we left behind in the McCoy Bottom.
My parents molded “the more the merrier” sensibility into my soul. If it wasn’t a reunion out of state, it was a Kentucky cousin looking for a bed and meal in Michigan. We moved over and made room for another wanderer in search of a job.
I thought everybody welcomed family, neighbors, and friends with spontaneous hospitality. Embracing this misconception, amongst many others, I married a Michigander—the second-born twin of English/Lithuanian heritage without a trace of hospitality in his personality.
Yes, he’s loved my kinfolk and their cooking from his first white-knuckle drive through Kentucky’s hairpin turns. Alas, I’ve learned “the more the merrier” trait is not contagious. It’s bred.
Recently, I’ve witnessed hopeful signs in my husband and his family. Mel’s cousins gathered for a reunion two summers ago. We drove north to Grand Lake with our dish to pass.
Three generations showed up! Babies slept on sofas and in fancy infant contraptions.  We talked with second cousins we’ve not seen in almost fifty years. I almost blundered and hugged a few.
And of all wonders, after declining countless high school reunion invitations, my husband at last mailed his RSVP with a check for the 55th reunion of the Grand Blanc graduation class of 1964.
Mel’s always felt awkward because his parents moved the family from Grand Blanc to Grand Rapids between his junior and senior year. “I didn’t graduate from Grand Blanc,” he’d say.
“They wouldn’t send you an invitation if they didn’t want to see you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Listen, you went to my fiftieth. It’s just fair I go to your fifty-fifth.”
The entire night I observed the surprise of recognition on strangers’ faces. I heard stories about my husband and his twin brother worthy of blackmail. Dancing with the Stars and Downton Abbey couldn’t compare.
Among the last to walk out the door, we left behind a huge piece of pink modern art cast upon Mel as the last item in the raffle.
Dear Reader, there are times to make exceptions to “the more the merrier.”

Who's Sweet Annie?

Sweet Annie, Artemisia vulgaris, annual mugwort
Years ago on a fair fall day, my sister-in-law and I wandered through a craft show in Grand Rapids with her first baby. Throughout the park, dappled light shone on vendors’ tents under old oaks and maples. 
The spirit of geniality triggered “nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.” Reruns of the Dick Van Dyke Show are prone to play in my mind in such ideal conditions.
Nancy stopped before a display of wreaths fashioned with summer’s harvest: grapevines, lavender, gourds, and plants I couldn’t identify. Plump wreaths of fernlike foliage and tiny yellow buds caught my eye. I leaned in for a whiff of a honeyed scent new to my nose.
“Just what I was looking for,” Nancy said.
“What is this plant? It smells wonderful.”  
“Sweet Annie. I buy one every year because the fragrance fills the house.”
The selection of Sweet Annie wreaths was plentiful and decorated plainly compared to the others embellished with spiders, ghosts, and gourds. When a plant is that attractive and aromatic, a modest bow will do.
I bought one for my bare, new kitchen, took it home, and hung it on the wall under a cabinet close to the sink.
I’d inhale Sweet Annie and think of Nancy and our afternoon together, taking turns pushing Becka in her stroller. In sequence, Nancy brought another daughter and a son home where she grew vegetables and herbs.
My wreath had long last served its purpose when I threw the dusty thing into the fire pit.
Much later, while weeding the fragrant quadrant in the herb garden of Seven Ponds Nature Center, I found countless Sweet Annie seedlings and took one home for my backyard gardens.
Nothing could be finer than making my own wreath from Artemisia annua. However, the herb didn’t protect my roses from aphids as other gardeners testify. 
Of the Asteraceae family, Sweet Annie is also known by other names, one being sweet wormwood, meaning it gained popularity for expelling worms when used as a tonic. However, most herbal sources state the use of wormwood’s absinthe, a toxic substance, “may produce convulsions in large doses and should not be taken.”
Another name for Sweet Annie is annual mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris. Now, this is enough to confuse an herbal student.   
With great expectations, I planted my seedling in the shade and watched it grow to my height. Meanwhile, I learned Sweet Annie isn’t a good girl in the kitchen, so use French tarragon instead, Artemisia dracunculus.
With all this botanical multiplicity, no wonder Sweet Annie went berserk in my gardens. Thousands of seedlings sprung up in every crack and crevice the following spring.
My battle with Artemisia ensued three summers.
Dear Reader, whoever Sweet Annie is botanically, wormwood or mugwort, she may pretty and smell good, but don’t be deceived. The girl’s trouble.
Nothing could be finer than to be rid of Artemisia in the morning.
I hope Nancy knows.