Grandma’s Barley Soup — and views on karmic retribution

Once, my late grandmother and I were watching TV. I was about 13. I can’t remember the exact context of what we witnessed on the TV show we were watching, but it was basically a bad guy getting his comeuppance, by way of multiple well-deserved punches to the face.

My grandmother turned to me and said, “at some point, everyone needs the universe to kick them in the ass. Maybe it’s not an actual ass-kicking, maybe it’s just a lesson. But if you need it, God gives it to you. Sometimes right in the kisser.”

Grandma’s relationship with God, as far as I knew, was … tenable. She had converted to evangelical Christianity for like five minutes in Britain as a young woman, when she, along with millions of others, was captivated by Billy Graham. That didn’t last long. I know she believed in a higher power, but that was the first real time I had heard her speak about God that way.

I’ve thought about that a lot of times since I have been fighting cancer. Was breast cancer part of a karmic retribution? Was it karma paying me back for that time I didn’t recycle? Or maybe grandma finally having it out with me about that glass punch bowl I broke?

Grandma had a lot of interesting views about karma and dying – she once famously said that if she were ever told she had months left on earth, she would make a list of people she hated — even though I doubt she could count the number of enemies she had on one hand.

And being a murderous, avenging cancer patient kinda has a ring to it. (It would probably make a good movie (*Copyright!) —  but now that it’s happening to me, it’s not how I would have imagined it.

It’s heartbreaking. I have to leave my friends, my boyfriend, my family and my cat (not necessarily in that order). I have time to say goodbye, which is great, but also excruciating. 

It’s momentous. What if everything I read about heaven and hell is actually true? What can I do in my last months to really make the world a better place?

It’s stressful. I have to clean out my apartment, and sell or give away nearly everything I own. I have to find an RV that’s relatively small and easy to handle, yet within my price range.

I have to plan to die.

The last thing I want to waste my time on is hating someone and making my last days all about them instead of me. I know it sounds selfish, but if there’s anytime to say “hey, this is what I WANT so I am making it happen no matter what,” it’s now.

Knowing your time is short – but not knowing how short – is really difficult. Moving is stressful under any circumstances. Travelling the country is hard to plan under any circumstances. Preparing for your imminent demise adds a whole nother layer of weird.

And the clock is ticking.

Maybe I will be dead in six months and none of this will matter. But I can’t help feeling like I have to hit the road. Like, as soon as possible.

At this point, I am frustrated. It feels like that time before a plan comes together, when you feel like maybe you made a mistake in undertaking this huge project. Sometimes that part comes right before everything works out perfectly. Sometimes this part comes right before it all blows up in your face.

Either way, I have to be out of this apartment in just over a week. If I don’t get an RV in the next couple of days (I have a good feeling about one I am going to go see in the morning), I will be taking my stuff to my mom’s house in Tennessee, and then starting my RV search from there. I should be able to find something for a better price there, too.

But that’s Plan B. Plan A is still to hit the road in 8 days, in an RV that I currently do not have. Both seem pretty terrifying.

I don’t know if this stress and insanity is life kicking me in the teeth. I don’t know if cancer coming back, this time with a vengeance, is some sort of karmic retribution for something I did in a past life (or even God forbid, in this one). I don’t know why this is happening to me.

But I know I have to make it count for something.

My grandma was a strong, and slightly crazy, woman. She had left her home country of Scotland at barely 18 years old, escaping an abusive husband with a two-year old (my mother) and an infant. She raised 6 kids on a budget while working full-time and running a household. She doted on her grandchildren and became a Quaker late in life. If anyone knew the value of life, it was Grandma.

I hope that, for her sake, I can take this punch to the chin and remain standing.

Grandma was also an amazing cook. The last week before I went to the hospital, I was craving a big bowl of hot soup, so I adapted her barley beef stew for the Instant Pot. It was a great, hearty meal (actually many, many meals), and it in the IP, you can make it in the summer without heating up your kitchen too much.

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Grandma’s Barley Soup

(adapted for the Instant Pot)

  • 1 lb. ground beef
  • 1 lb. fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 6 oz. dried pearl barley (about half a bag)
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 2 stalks fresh celery, diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 2-3 tbsp. (minimum) diced garlic
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1 tsp. cumin
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 liter water*
  • 2 tabs of beef bouillon or Bisto**

Put the Instant Pot on the sauté setting and add the onions, garlic, celery and carrot. Once the vegetables are slightly cooked (2-3 minutes) add the beef and brown thoroughly.

Turn the Instant Pot off, and add the spices, mushrooms, bouillon, barley and water. Mix thoroughly. Note: you do not need to pre-soak the barley; the Instant Pot will do all of the work.

Place the lid on the Instant Pot, and make sure the vent is closed. Set on High Pressure for 45 minutes. Release naturally.

*You may need to add extra water or broth at the end, Grandma always made a soup like a stew, and a stew practically like a casserole. It’s gonna be thick.

** Grandma was British so she loved Bisto, which is a popular brand that gives a particular flavor. It’s not as easy to find in the states, so any beef bouillon is perfectly fine for this recipe.