Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The "Stone Soup Potluck" as it is being called, is a huge success. In fact it is likely to turn into a weekly tradition for the neighborhood. At least for the foreseeable future anyway. It is a way for everyone to have some variety in their diets and contribute to the well-being of their less fortunate neighbors. What goes around comes around. A household may have an abundance one week, and then have bare cabinets the next. The Stone Soup Potluck is a way to make sure that every household has at least one solid and nutritious meal each week.

The soup itself is a wild hodge-podge of ingredients. The result is a cross between a soup and a stew, thicker than your average soup but too thin to be a true stew. On some days it is thinner than others. The soup has a lot of dried beans in it but there is a pretty good showing of fresh ingredients as well from backyard gardens.

Scott and Sissy’s neighborhood isn’t the only one experimenting with this type of effort. All around the country, groups of two or three households all the way up to large apartment complexes work together to share what resources they have. International news is sparse at times, but soup lines are a common factor in many human-interest stories coming in from around the world.

There are risks involved – cross infection from too many people in one location, poor food handling causing outbreaks of food borne illnesses and parasitic infections, and allergic reactions to unknown ingredients. But for hungry people, the risks are worth it. But there are ways to lower the risks. Walk-up windows protect food handlers from becoming infected. Stringent cleaning practices help to prevent such things as salmonella, e. coli, camphylobacter, shigella, and listeria. Signs hung up listing communal cooking pot ingredients, including any cooking oils that were used, let people know most if not all of what they were getting.

Sissy struggles to keep up with all of her gardening. While her family continues to recover she is left to do all of the heavy labor by herself; including the daily in and out of the container garden. She has considered about just leaving everything out, but all the problems people are having with raccoons and two-legged varmints keeps her at it. As it is, the neighborhood has to put a 24 hour guard on the cooperative garden in the back of the Cleary house after Mr. Cleary kept having to run people out of the garden several times every night.

James, the first to begin recovering, is helping as best he can. He continues to pick fruit in the grove next door. He can also sit and weed the things in the container garden; however he tires quickly. The girls help by watching Johnnie and washing what is harvested from the garden. Thus far, the family has used everything but the grapefruit and shelling beans fresh. They are lucky they didn’t lose anything while the family was sick. It rained lightly twice or they would have lost quite a bit. The weather remained cool, so nothing wilted. But the weeds nearly strangled some of the seedlings.

Scott and Barry put off their run two more days and Sissy is grateful. Everyone needs the extra recovery time. In addition to Barry Jr., another man from the neighborhood with carpentry skills is coming. His name is Tom Cox. Tom owned his own cabinetry business prepandemic, but no one needs new cabinets these days. Few enough people have anything to put in their old cabinets. Between the four men they hope to catch up on some of the delayed repair business referrals which they will all get shares in. After this run, if his daughter continues to improve, Barry Jr. will return to his job at the Sheriff’s department. If Tom works out, and work keeps coming, they will pick up another man from the neighborhood to replace Barry Jr.

In preparation for the run, Scott asks Sissy if there is anything in particular that she would like him to look for. "Everything" just isn’t a good enough answer, though its certainly accurate.

Sissy has been dreading this, but in order for her to tell Scott exactly what they need the most, a re-inventory is in order. Sissy knows they are coming up short in some things. Saltine crackers are the first thing that springs to mind, but that isn’t something that will likely be for trade. Depending on how much flour they have left, she has a recipe she can use to make their own crackers. They will not be as pretty and uniform as the ones that are commercially packaged, but they will do the job. Sissy found one bag of flour had weevils in it. They can’t afford the loss, so when her family isn’t looking she puts the flour through a fine sieve and sets it in a container to use for the next couple of batches of bread. She read this as common during the US Civil War but she never expected to be in a position where she would have to do it herself.

They still have quite a bit of rice. She does wish she had stocked more packages of yellow rice; she will need to be more sparing with that or hope she has the ingredients to make it from scratch. Even once the groceries are able to stock better, specialty items will probably take a while to see wide availability.

She still has plenty of tortilla ingredients on hand, flatbread ingredients as well. But if the men run across any flour she won’t turn her nose up at her share. She needs to be more sparing with the yeast at some point, but so far so good. She can try making sourdough starter but her prepandemic experiments doing this were only partially successful. Sissy prefers the Amish Friendship Bread Starter, but that is sweet and doesn’t go well with everything.

Sissy sees they still have plenty of pastas, except for a few of the specialty shapes which she decides to either save for soup or donate to the communal "Stone Soup." She wishes she could remember when acorns fall from the oak trees. She is pretty certain it is in August, but she can’t remember for sure. If the markets haven’t gotten better by then, she’ll have to give making acorn flour a try, assuming the squirrels don’t get them all first. Those fuzzy-tailed rats get into everything else, she’ll have to be fast to get enough to work with.

There is still case upon case of canned veggies. These are being supplemented with the fresh stuff they are growing in their yard. But any fresh fruits and veggies that Scott can trade for will mean that the longer-term storage items won’t need to be gotten into yet.

Dairy isn’t a problem yet either. Sissy still blesses the posters on the various flu forums who had pointed her in the direction of several long term and survival food stores. From a company called Honeyville she picked up a year’s worth of powdered eggs and powdered milk for a very reasonable price. Seeing the remaining, unopened #10 cans gives her a feeling of confidence that she will be able to provide her family with a varied and nutritious menu for a long while yet. She has also stocked cans of evaporated milk, cheese, and ghee (clarified butter which requires no refrigeration).

Sissy sees that the family still has a lot of canned meat. They are probably one of the few that still do in their neighborhood. She prepped nearly a hundred cans each of chicken and home-canned ground beef. They still have home-canned meatballs, cocktail weenies, pork loin, and beef stew meat as well as commercially canned tuna, canned hams, canned vegan meat substitutes, and other canned meat products. They also have a pretty good selection of home-canned convenience meals like the ethnic ones that her family is fond of and a bunch of soups. They even have TVP (textured vegetable protein) from one of her early buys of long term food storage items. Sissy is very careful to conceal the fact they still have all of this meat. Meat as well as other proteins are one of the things that a lot of people are beginning to crave. With birds out of the diet, at least for now, and all pork products suspect, beef is an exorbitant amount at the grocery according to neighborhood gossip. . . when it is even in stock. If people can hold on until October, Florida’s seafood season will get in full swing with crabs, snapper, and shrimp available to the private angler. What to do in the mean time is the question.

What Sissy is a little worried about are paper products. They went through an extraordinary amount while everyone was sick. And they are going through a lot of laundry detergent trying to catch up with all the towels and sheets, not to mention the whole house scrubbing that Sissy did to get rid of all the germs that she could. She used a lot of deodorizer to try and get the rank smell from all the sickness out too. So on her list she puts down any unopened bottles of detergent, cleaners, and paper goods. They aren’t close to running out yet, but she will feel better if they can build their stock back up. The other thing she puts down as a priority is cooking oil, unopened of course. She prefers not to risk intentional or unintentional contamination. Nor does she want to get second hand oil that has been strained and bottled as "fresh."

Their sweeteners – granulated sugars (both white and brown), honey, cane syrup, and molasses – are holding out. So is the pancake syrup, but it won’t last forever. But Sissy doubts anyone is holding a stash of sweeteners. If someone can ever come up with a honey farm they will make a fortune in barter goods, and probably cash as well. The sugar cane in south Florida is usually finished being harvested by the end of April but no one knows if it is going to make it further north this year. Since Florida still harvests cane mostly by hand, rather than the mechanized methods of Hawaii and Louisiana, there is also the concern that there won’t be enough workers to harvest the crop. It’s a brutal job and dangers lie in the form of machete accidents and snakebites. If any sugar does make it out of south Florida, it will probably be a pricey item.

The day of the run dawns clear; a good sign. All the men pile into the van and left. Sissy has not been looking forward to this day, but knows it is both inevitable and necessary. She slips a picnic lunch into the work van as well as a gallon of citrus-ade . . . a mix of whatever citrus fruit juice they have on hand. This will add to whatever each man brings from home, including his own jug of water. But she plans to have a surprise ready for when Scott comes home.

Sarah and Bekah have birthdays in close enough proximity that they are sometimes celebrated together. This year, one birthday passed while everyone was ill and the other is looming around the corner. Thanks to the unusually cool weather, the potted strawberries are taking longer to ripen than expected, but a couple of pints of berries are ready for harvesting.

The surprise, to celebrate the girls’ birthdays and everyone’s recovery, is strawberry shortcake. Sissy picks the berries then cleans, caps, and slices them into a bowl. Then she sprinkles them with a little sugar before setting them aside. Sissy uses baking mix and a simple recipe to make the shortcake part. To top this off, she has a real surprise. She makes fluffy whipped topping from powdered milk.

"Momma, can I help?"

"Sure Bekah. Get the measuring cups, the whisk, and that big bowl I put in the freezer and put all of it on the counter while I get the ingredients."

"What can I do now?"

"OK use the one-third measuring cup. First measure in a third cup non-fat dry milk out of that big box. Then add one-third cup of ice cold water."

"Is this mixed enough?"

"Uh huh. Now add one-quarter cup of white sugar and mix it up again."

"Does the sugar need to be all melted?"

"It need to be all dissolved. I want you to keep whisking. I’m going to put in one teaspoon of lemon juice and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. That’s right, keep whisking."

"Momma, my arm’s getting tired."

Sissy smiles as she says, "I thought you wanted to help."

"I do, but my arm is still getting tired.’

"Here, let me show you something. When you get a little bigger you’ll be able to pick up the bowl and tilt it a little so you can whisk really fast like this."

"Wow! That’s really fast. How come you aren’t spilling anything?"

"Practice sweet pea. And we have to keep doing this until fluffy peaks form."

"It looks like that Dream Whip stuff."

"Sorta is. But this is something I can make from scratch. We might not have any Dream Whip one of these days."

When the men come home they are definitely tired. In addition to fatigue though, there are undercurrents of other emotions. There is obvious satisfaction on their faces for having brought in quite a haul of barter goods and cash. Sissy can tell from Scott’s expression as he unloads the day’s haul that they had a good day, but his eyes also hold a hint of something else.

After the other men leave Scott says, "Well, its certainly been one of those days."

"How so?"

"We’ve go four empty units."

"Oh no. Where? Do you know why? Are they damaged?"

"All in the same complex. According to the neighbors one unit went vacant – you never met this woman, she moved in right before the pandemic – when this woman was arrested for battery with a deadly weapon at a brawl at a market. Three people had to go to triage. That one isn’t too bad ‘cause the woman’s relatives came and took the kids and cleaned out the apartment too."

"What about the other three?"

"One was abandoned when that Haitian chick with the three kids split from her boyfriend. Neighborhood gossips say they still see ‘em around, just living with other partners. The other two apartments were just walked away from. Who knows why or where they tenants are now, but they left what appears to be most of their stuff."

"How bad is this going to be?"

"Not too bad. Actually not bad at all maybe."

"How can you say that?! That’s four apartments!"

"I’ve already got more people wanting those units. I’ve got more wanting the units than I have units available. And no one vandalized the empty units. Mr. Sawyer, his son and that bug guy Elwin pretty much have that complex under control. I actually don’t think they were sorry to see some of those people go as they were making trouble and talking trash, especially that chick that got arrested."

Contrary to what Scott has expected to happen, he is still one of the few landlords that accepts barter goods for rent. His units also have consistent water service, though he has found a few tenants have tried to remove the governors from the supply lines. This shuts down the intake set up behind the wall and they’ve finally learned to leave them alone or suffer without water until Scott comes o reset them. Many apartment complexes around town do not have consistent utilities, either due to repair issues or payment issues. Too few owners have the cash to float the bills until the economy stabilizes.

Scott is thankful that the men have agreed to go with him again tomorrow and clean out the units so he can turn all four apartments before curfew. It will be a big help and they will split any of the abandoned items that are worth keeping just like in the repair service.

What really caused the grimness in his eyes though is when they had to detour around one of the hospital areas. Illness around town has spiked. For the second time, people are being triaged into various tents in the hospital parking lots. One of Barry Jr.’s contacts on the HCSO (Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office) recognized him and told him that while deaths from the flu are only going up slightly, the number of people being hospitalized has more than doubled.

The HCWs are at the breaking point due to fatigue; several have simply walked off the job. Despite this, things are still fairly well organized but it’s a close thing. There are wards set aside for patients who have family members willing and able to assist in their care. Worse is the fact that there are so many children down sick that there are three huge tents set up just for them.

"Honey, you should have see Barry Jr.’s face when he heard that many of the kids didn’t seem to have any family looking after or for them. It was actually painful to see his expression. He’s having a hard time with going back to work. Barry is really worried about his state of mind."

"Is there anything we can do?" Sissy asks.

"Now that you mention it . . . and I know we should have discussed this between us first . . . but I told Barry that we would put together a box of PPE and food that Barry Jr. could take back to the substation with him or keep in his patrol car."

Sissy replies, "I don’t have a problem with doing that and you know it. What aren’t you telling me?"

"Well, I told Barry Jr. that we’d look after the girls if anything happens."

"Uh, what does if anything happens mean exactly?"

"I said that if things got bad we would make sure that his girls were looked after. I guess that could mean a lot of different things but mainly it means that if there are no adults left to take them in, we’ll take them rather than see them go into child protective services."

After a stunned moment with Sissy trying to breathe and think her way through this bombshell, "I know this is going to sound horrible, but you do realize we have five children of our own to look after right?! I’m struggling to stay on top of things now, how am I going to add three more children to the equation? These girls don’t even really know me. They adore you because you were the Santa delivery guy. But I will be the one left to integrate them into everything."

"Look, don’t put the cart before the horse. I didn’t mean for you to get all bent out of shape about it. I know it’s a risk, but Anne doesn’t have any family and Barry Jr. only has his dad and step mother to count on. There’s the brother at MIT but he is several years younger and unmarried."

"Geez Louise. I know you mean well, and I do want to help, but this is really hard to get my head around. We could jump from five kids to eight overnight. And the oldest might wind up with special needs from the fever and dehydration when the sickness came through. I’m not even sure that I’m qualified, much less able to address what she might need. It makes my teeth hurt just trying to imagine it. If only for Barry’s sake I don’t want to see the girls fall into child protective services custody, but you have to admit this is a lot for me to swallow all of a sudden like this."

"I know. And like I said I know we should have discussed it between us first. I just didn’t see an alternative. We are probably the only family in the neighborhood equipped to do it. Illness runs rampant in those temporary housing facilities. A kid might survive the loss of his or her family only to die due to the intended kindness of virtual strangers."

"Just give me a sec. I agree with you . . . its just . . . its just . . . I don’t know. Surprising? Shocking? Scary?! We aren’t even listed as next of kin for my nephews. To suddenly find out I could be raising three more kids?" Then taking a deep breath Sissy capitulates by saying, "Ok, I agree to this, but I want every piece of contact information on those other two brothers of his – even the crappy one. And I want this up front with Barry and his wife. I do not want any of this ‘assumption’ stuff. We do it legally and above board or not at all. I don’t want to fall in love with those little girls only to have them ripped away because we didn’t cross a ‘t’ or dot an ‘I’."

"Done," says Scott. "I’ll try and find some forms and I’ll see about getting them notarized."

As Sissy goes through the remainder of her day, she thinks that she shouldn’t be surprised by what Scott proposed. He is a grumpaholic hard-heart around most adults, but when it comes to kids he can be a real marshmallow. And its not like this sort of thing isn’t happening all over. The pandemic is striking hardest at the five to twenty-five years age group, but not exclusively. Parents and guardians are dying, leaving children of all ages without caregivers. Sometimes the kids are simply turned over to the state or abandoned when their parents cannot take care of them anymore. Foster parenting is becoming much more common, though the system continues to be rife with problems.

Something new has also sprung up called co-parenting. Two or more adult households are helping to raise a single child. In other cases it is a sibling group being raised. But genetically unrelated groups of kids in this set up are also appearing. The reasons for this phenomenon run the gamut from economic to emotional.

A segment of the Devon McLoud series was on this when he spent nearly a week at a commune in Utah where a multi-generational group of fourteen households were helping to raise a dozen children, three of whom were newborns of mothers who had died at the local health care center.
McLoud ended the segment by saying, "The whole group represents different age groups, different religions, and different ethnic backgrounds. There are lots of differences in the adults. But they all agree on one thing. Their greatest priority is keeping their children healthy - emotionally and physically - using all the talents and ingenuity at their disposal."

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