Monday, December 21, 2009

A Safe Place

It's two o'clock in the afternoon. My wife, two friends, and I park at the unmarked entrance of a nondescript building. A phone call is made. The door opens and we step out of the bright sun into a dim, fluorescent-lit corridor. We are escorted though a maze of hallways, each under the scrutiny of monitored surveillance cameras. We are being watched closely. Each door we pass through requires a key or badge. Security is at its highest. This place is not a government bunker or a maximum-security prison. It's the Northwest Arkansas Women's Shelter, a safe haven for women and children who are survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. They've experienced firsthand the kind of violence that most of us only encounter in nightmares that leave us with racing hearts and sweaty skin. But these women have made the decision to leave, and, perhaps in the dead of night, they've fled their homes, leaving behind their old lives—along with many of their possessions—in order to start a new one. We're here to cook Christmas dinner for them. It seem like such a trivial thing to do when compared with the list of other needs they each must surely have.

The kitchen is in the middle of the residence, and "clients," as they're referred to, peek from their rooms and around corners as we make our way through the hall. Though small, the kitchen has sufficient room to work. We begin to unpack the rolling cart, suitcase, and cooler with the food and tools we will need to cook. On my team today are Margo, a friend and coworker (who I am convinced is my sister, Evelyn, incarnate), her friend Kristy, and my wife, Mary. They have graciously volunteered their time to help prepare the large meal. As we begin, I'm a little flustered. I'm not in my own kitchen, which throws me a bit. Fortunately, Mary steps in and makes the logistics flow. She is the Tom Cruise to my Dustin Hoffman.

Margo and Kristy chop apples, peppers, and onions while I retrieve from the cooler one of the two turkeys we'll be cooking. I smear butter and herbs in the pocket created by separating the skin from the meat with my fingers. Chopped apples, onions, and herbs go into the cavity of the turkey to act as aromatics and add flavor. The children's laughter bouncing through the halls surprises me. I don't know what I expected. Of the four or five years that we've cooked for the shelter, this is the first time we've cooked on site; the first time we've been in close proximity to the clients and them to us. A little girl suddenly appears at the kitchen door.

"Boo!" she says loudly. "Did I scare you?" We all feign surprise and shock, assuring her that we were, indeed, scared. She giggles and runs off. Moments later she is back to scare us again. And we are just as scared the second time around. And the third. And the fourth. Eventually the other children come into the kitchen to check things out, watch us work, and stand on tiptoes to peer into bowls being filled with chopped apples, peppers, and onions. A woman with a positively cherubic baby on her hip slips into the kitchen quietly and opens a cabinet door.

"I'm sorry, I just want to get a coffee cup and I'll be out of your way," she says. Out of our way? Is this another symptom of having been abused? The assumption that no matter where you are or where you go you're in someone's way?

"I think we're the ones in the way," I say with a smile and a slight laugh. A smile forms on her lips, hesitantly at first, then spreads across her face, crinkling her skin.

"No, we appreciate y'all coming in here and cooking for us," she says. The baby grabs a handful of Mom's hair and gently pulls her fingers through it. This child is beyond adorable. With chubby pink cheeks and eyes as blue as the Mediterranean, she is the kind of child who turns rational adults into babbling idiots. We all fawn over her, which delights her and her mother to no end. As they leave the kitchen, we all return the little one's bye-bye waves—not so much waves as fat little fingers repeatedly scrunched as if grabbing at invisible butterflies.

Both turkeys are now in the oven. Margo, Kristy, and Mary are a blur, cutting focaccia bread into cubes and sautéing onions and peppers as I chop celery for the rustic bread dressing. Mary has had the presence of mind to bring the iPod and a portable speaker. As we cook we're serenaded with Christmas tunes by Harry Connick, Jr., Chicago, Bebe and Cece Winans, and others. The pots on the stove release wisps of steam into the air, which is warm and thick with the smells of holiday food. Another woman steps into the kitchen, hands Margo an envelope, and quickly walks away. Margo opens it and begins to read the enclosed card to us. As she reads, her voice becomes strained and tears well up in her eyes. By the time she finishes, we are all overcome and unable to do anything remotely resembling work.

"Me and my children would like to thank you all for making Christmas dinner for us. It touches my heart that you all take time out of your own lives to touch someone else's. Thank you and God bless you."

She includes her first name and those of her three children—something not usually done in these circumstances. We compose ourselves and soldier on. It's time to toast the bread cubes and start the cranberry compote. Margo and Kristy have buzzed through chopping vegetables and bread. There's not much left to do except wait for the turkeys to finish cooking, so I tell them that if they want they can leave. I do have two other dishes to make, smashed sweet potatoes with cinnamon and nutmeg, and green beans with a balsamic shallot butter, but these will be easy. After Margo and Kristy leave to be escorted back out, a little boy comes into the kitchen, hands stuffed deep into his pockets, and asks, "What're you doing?"
"We're cooking dinner," Mary responds.
"Wif what?"
"Well, there's turkey. Do you like turkey?"
A head shake no.
"How about dressing. Do you like dressing?"
Another no.
"What about sweet potatoes. Do you like those?"
Yet another no.
"I bet you like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese," Mary says triumphantly.
Finally, a nod yes.
"Well, we're going to have some for you here in just a little bit. Would you like a cookie for now?"
A vigorous nod yes.

He clutches his cookie close to his chest like an otter holding a clam and skips out of the kitchen, only to return a few moments later. I can see him eyeing the suitcase full of utensils and dry goods. Picking up a masher, he asks, "What's dis?"
"That's a potato masher," Mary says. "You use it to mash up potatoes."
"I wanna do it."
"Um...OK." Then to me, "Are the sweet potatoes ready to be mashed?"
"Yes they are," I answer.
Mary sets the foil roasting pan on the lid of the cooler and together they mash the sweet potatoes. Several more utensils get pulled from the suitcase, each with the requisite "What's dis?" and "I wanna do it." After helping bring other dishes to completion, he darts off to play with the other children.

As the afternoon goes on, we begin the process of cleaning up and packing our things back into the cart and suitcase. The women are now milling around outside the kitchen, peeking in occasionally to smile, say hi, and tell us how good it smells. Their gratitude for such a small thing is overwhelming. I can only imagine the ways in which their worlds have been turned upside down. Perhaps something as simple as a meal can lend a sense of normalcy to their lives.

As we head down the hall, a stampede of children rushes us from behind and surrounds us, reaching and hugging, giggling and thanking us. After every hug has been dispensed, we are escorted back through the maze of hallways to the exit. We are thanked one last time by the advocate on duty and the door closes behind us. It is now dark and cold outside, but I know that the women and children inside are enjoying a warm Christmas dinner in a safe place.