November 1, 2011
Father McKenzie ran the spatula hard around the inside of the peanut butter jar. There was barely enough for his breakfast this
morning, and there wasn’t another jar in the cupboard. “Peanut butter” was written in Father Henry’s crooked hand on the list they kept for Helen. He wondered how long ago Father Henry had done this, fixed himself something with peanut butter and noticed they’d soon need more. It was unlike Helen to let such a necessity run so low.
He walked over to the toaster, the peanut butter-loaded spatula in his right hand and a salad plate in his left. You couldn’t let these 100-calorie sandwich rolls complete a full cycle, even at the lightest setting. He put down the plate and pushed the CANCEL button. The pop-up action was so strong it propelled the thin rounds out of the slots. He caught them both, dropped them on the plate, and smeared the peanut butter on them, trying to divide it equally between the halves. The peanut butter softened enough to spread easily, although not so much that it oozed through the holes in the bread. He added a dollop of black cherry spreadable fruit to one of the halves, and then fitted them together to make a sandwich, pressing lightly with his fingers in several places so there would be both fruit and peanut butter in every bite.
Before lifting the sandwich to his mouth he closed his eyes and prayed the way his four-year-old niece prayed: Thank you God for this good one-protein, one-bread, low-point, high-nutrition breakfast. Amen.
— Margaret DeAngelis, b. 1947
American fiction writer, from a work-in-progress
I wrote the passage above in June of 2010. Father McKenzie was then a minor character in Perpetual Light, the novel I have been writing since 2002 (with no work done on it in 2003, so, for those who are counting, it’s only been almost nine years, not ten). Back then he was something of a prop character, someone who acted as a mediator between the central character (his childhood friend) and Helen, the friend’s much older sister. As of last June, he’d made a brief appearance in only one scene, written in 2002.
The first weekend in June I had dinner with an old friend. He is an Episcopal priest who was in town to give the baccalaureate address at the high school he graduated from. Another friend and I attended the service together, and then the three of us went out to dinner. Barry is out of parish ministry now, lives alone on a farm that has been in his family for a number of years. He writes, facilitates support groups, does some volunteer work. Our friend also lives alone and pursues a variety of interests, and I’m the empty-nester with a haphazard schedule and no need anymore to provide regular meals and positive family interaction at mealtime for a growing child. As we enjoyed our elegant meal, “plated”attractively (restaurant-speak for “arranged artfully and served to a seated guest”) with a panoply of utensils and a crisp linen napkin, we talked about what we eat when we eat alone, and Barry described the sandwich above.
A photo of an almost finished McKenzie is at left. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Father McKenzie (whose first name has not yet gelled for me) since October 1. That morning I read “Beefless,” an essay by Deborah Thompson in the spring issue of Creative Nonfiction, in which several recent widows gather at a women’s exercise salon and work out their grief. One of the women has a somewhat awkward relationship with food that I kept thinking about, imagining what it would be like to have that particular compulsion. I thought about her as I drove to my Weight Watchers meeting, twisting and shaping her eating quirk and imagining a reason for it, until I had a character.
Before the meeting started, I got out my notebook to write down a few thoughts, and suddenly, there was Father McKenzie, clearer than he had ever been before, five years after the events of the novel, 39 years old now and concerned about the state of his health as well as the state of his vocation, and I knew that he and the woman I had just imagined as a young widow who can no longer eat at the dining table her husband built would have to meet and work out their problems together.
And here we are, a month from that moment. It keeps drawing me back, and I work on it every day. There is an eating scene or a reference to food in every piece of fiction I write, but this story is saturated with it. Before this I was never a fan of the PB&J, but I have a McKenzie for breakfast a lot these days. And when I note it in my Weight Watchers food journal, I no longer break it out by its elements, 3 points for the English muffin, 2 points for the spreadable fruit, 2 points for the peanut butter (if you use just one tablespoon of peanut butter, 5 if you use two), but just jot down ”McKenzie —7.”
As you can see from the new badge in the sidebar, this is the start of National Blog Posting Month. I’ve done this several years, wobbled out of it last year when the format changed and I found it confusing and time-consuming to stay connected. I made a decision yesterday to use NaBloPoMo as motivation to write in this space, my Eat, Pray, Walk chronicle, about food, hunger, weight loss, walking, and the spirituality of it all. So, then, every day in November, a note, a recipe, a picture from a walk, an update on Father McKenzie.
The recipe for The McKenzie is given pretty clearly in the excerpt from the manuscript. Try it yourself, I thank my friend Barry for it, and Deborah Thompson for her compelling essay that gave me the seed for a character. And I thank you for reading, so much, so often.