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Soup Will Make You Strong

January 2007

When I was seven, the owners of my dad’s workplace shut down production and locked the workers out. After we exhausted the union benefits, we ate the canned food in our cellar-stewed tomatoes, beets, corn, okra, and beans. We ran out of heating oil, my mother miscarried, but the lock out continued. My father, the union president, began to drink, heavily.

One cold, grey February day, one locked-out worker, our neighbor Walter, shot both his sleeping children in the head, then shot himself. My mom didn’t talk any more–she sat rocking staring into space. My dad helped the police carry the bodies out of Walter’s house. The workers gave up.

Next day, Walter’s wife, our neighbor, Hedwig, showed up at the door. She had a package of frozen spinach and a bag of bones from a roast chicken. I found an onion and some cloves of garlic and Hedwig began to cook soup. When the broth began to warm the kitchen, she pulled an egg from her apron pocket, cracked it, whipped it into a froth, then slowly, slowly, slowing drizzled it into the chicken-spinach broth.

I cleared the kitchen table. Hedwig poured steaming soup into a white bowl. She sat me on her lap-big as I was–and she fed me spoon by spoon, her strong arms around me, the soup warming me from inside. Then we fed my mom.

Making soup, Hedwig knew, gave order to insanity. We took care to dice the onion very fine, but not the garlic. Garlic diced too fine would overwhelm the spinach. And what better way to share an egg among seven than to wisk it ever so lightly into a broth? We could, we would, somehow, together, make it through.

Memory is not reliable, but I think Hedwig stayed till my mother stopped rocking and my father stopped drinking. “I’ll teach you to clean and cook,” she said. “You may never find a husband but you’ll always have work.”

When my estranged brother was diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer, soup was the only way I could show my feeling. And the first soup I made was a Hedwig recipe. I became obsessed, testing recipes, flipping bowls of trial soup before my family when they stumbled into the kitchen for breakfast. I tested every recipe twice. I needed to watch as they ate it, as if somehow feeding them, feeding my brother, would push the horror back, would make them and him strong.

My brother died. He died anyway. But I learned that everything I make is Hedwig soup.

Hedwig always said, “Evil exists. Horrible happens, but we fight it when we feed each other. So take what you have, chop it, and lightly sautee it. Add water and seasoning. Think about making it beautiful–the color, the texture, the flavors. Talk to your soup and tell it to push the horror back. Soup will make you strong.”

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