Thursday, March 31, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime rice-a-roni

Convenience may not be the most delicious, but it is a consideration. My mother worked full time, had little money and took whatever help she could get. She loved Rice-A-Roni. It was her way to elevate the same old same old, so in my eyes Rice-A-Roni became the mother-from-which-all-other-rice-dishes-derived; Biriyani, Arroz con Gandules, Mujaddara—even Chinese fried rice. Ass backwards, and the crazy thing is subliminally I still felt this despite knowing something of the crisscrossed journey of rice and recipes across time. We hold tight to what our mothers teach us despite the things we learn, but then their dying changes how we see.

As a kid the elongated vermicelli and swollen grains were an impressionistic tangle of tasty earth tones, Van Gogh on an otherwise hum drum plate. And eating something with such a happy tv jingle meant we too were a happy tv home. Now, the hydrolyzed corn gluten, disodium inosinate and dehydrated parsley flecks in true Proustian form carried me back through time, but the flavor set-off a collapse of painstakingly built illusion. The salty ersatz pilaf, like that premise of happiness, turns out to have been make-believe.

In 1960, my mother, the shy youngest of shtetl immigrants, divorced my father who was having an affair, or maybe he left her—I never knew. Either way it was a distinction among her siblings and extended relatives, which speaks to her liberalism, and also how bad her marriage must have been. Dogged by missing support checks, the string of live-in nannies, my sister’s troubles—it was more than she could handle even though I tried so hard to make it right.

That bite of Rice-A-Roni after forty-five years filled my mouth with vitriol. Its broken promise tasted of my mother’s shortcomings, her weaknesses, my father’s narcissism, his absenteeism, my sister’s fragility, my passivity. Our missed connections. That bite ripped open memories I would have liked to forget. I scrapped the Rice-A-Roni into the trash and left the pan on the counter where the rice dregs dried to crust.

Two days later washing my mother’s precious pan I was filled with such sadness it took away my breath. This is what she did. She fed us, then washed the dishes through her sadness and disappointment. She did the best she could. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime chocolate milk


     Around 5:30 pm most nights I’d hover by the front door, waiting to take my mother’s attache case from her hand, to lay it down 15 feet later on the hall bench as she hung up her coat and took off her heels. Hungrier for her than for supper I’d trail her to the kitchen— besides nothing was on tv then except Huntley-Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. 
     It couldn’t have been easy, working all day and then rushing to make supper with a kid hanging on your apron, but my mother had her repertoire and I think she was generally content making meals. It might have been hard times in our house, and I'm finding there's a lot I can't remember from then, as if I've tried to wipe the slate clean, but I still have catalogued in my brain the kitchen’s inventory and in what cabinet or drawer every item was stored.
     By the time I was 10 or 11 I was reading cookbooks and making my own dishes to add to the meals. What grabbed me in the kitchen was it was a place I had fun. Food’s a gregarious companion that shares intimacies and jokes and gets messy and needs to hear what you are thinking. Maybe more so than anyone else.
     The years cooking when my kids were young, two things went on. The kitchen offered respite from the stress of my crumbling marriage. In its sanctuary I could sling back a couple of glasses of wine and have what felt like an uncomplicated successful encounter with my friend, food, while at the same time let my kids know that even if I wasn’t paying attention to them I was thinking about their well-being. Cooking let me look like a loving caring mother. In some ways I was, and in some ways I let the food do the loving for me, because I was drinking too much and like my mother, overwhelmed by circumstance.
     I don’t think my mother thought of food the way I think of food, though I don’t know and can’t believe I never got around to asking her. When I think of the things she made I try to imagine how she used that food to communicate with me. The food shows me she cared; it was tasty, healthy, and well prepared, but it wasn’t a dialogue directly with me. She wasn’t saying ‘I took time to make your favorite’ or ‘I want you to taste such and such because I’m watching you grow and think you’ll like it now’ or ‘I know you are studying X at school and this is what that food is like’ the way I did with my kids. Her dinner wouldn't have been different if I were there or not. She just made food.
     Since she died I have been cooking what she cooked, trying to feel something about her I lost touch with in the years of her illness. Each dish I've made has gotten at feelings I didn’t even know were there, but I hadn’t felt my mothers' love, and here I mean that deep internalized kind, until I made chocolate syrup and stirred a glass of chocolate milk. 
     When I was a kid we flipped between Bosco, Hershey's and Fox’s U-bet. It was what made milk palatable. I had it in morning cereal, with afternoon snack and at night I’d make milkshakes and my mother would add a splash of seltzer to make herself an egg cream. The syrup was her gift; her way of fixing things: I didn’t like milk but had to drink it, she let me use syrup. I can still hear the spoon clinking on the side of the glass and see the bright white milk transform to red-ish brown. I would chew on the straw or blow bubbles till they overflowed and popped on the table, leaving chocolate puddles. As a teen-ager I swiped a bottle from one of the kids I babysat for and late at night I’d lie on the couch sucking chocolate milk, obliterating my mind with late night tv. 
     Homemade syrup is remarkably easy. Just a handful of ingredients and it takes only minutes to prepare. When I put chocolate milk on the list of foods that would commemorate my mother, I make it from scratch. 
     A warming fire lit my throat as the chocolates’ spiciness went down but the milk smoothed it out, stroking me gently, holding me. My eyes grew heavy. It got quiet as I drank. 
     Its years since I laid off booze. The respect from my boys keeps me on track. What I felt drinking the chocolate milk is what I wanted all those years from the wine—a moment of coddling with no separation between my self and being held. The thing our mother gives us when we’re born.

1 cup good quality unsweetened cocoa
2/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
pinch of salt
big splash of vanilla

In a small saucepan over medium heat whisk together cocoa, sugar, water and salt. When it comes to a boil, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. It thickens as it cools. Can be stored in a jar in the refrigerator for weeks.

Add a tablespoon or two into a big glass of cold milk. Stir.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime seeded rye

I hated the seeds in the rye my mother loved. Now I can pick them out.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime mashed potatoes

In most cases the progression of Parkinson’s includes dementia but that’s almost too simplistic to describe the hallucinatory dissociation and drug induced psychosis that was part of my mother’s increasing isolation and grim prospects. At some point she drifted from lucid to lost but even then, if I vigilantly hung on her words I could shuffle them into something you might call conversation. It went on like this for years, almost as if we’d struck a bargain. I’d sit close leaning in my ear and guess what she meant and every so often I’d lean even closer and whisper I was sorry her life was so hard, so sorry. And every so often, maybe every fifth or sixth visit, there’d be a moment when she would look at me and summon all her focus and tell me that she wished she were dead. 

Mostly, until the end, she knew who I was and I would feel that maybe, if nothing else, I brightened her day. You might call it love, but it was wrapped in tacit denial of the bleakness, and below that a layer of what—grandiose narcissism; as if my presence could reverse broken neurons, as if it were a matter of will for her to pull herself together? As she lay finally dying and the hospice nurses wanted to give her morphine to still her tremors and ease her passing, I was torn. I wanted her suffering over, I’d been saying that for years, but I wanted more to hold on to the hope that she’d wake up and look at me and say some last bolstering word to right me in this world. Making and eating her food memorializes her. The way the taste of foods I haven’t eaten for years carries me back in time helps bypass the black hole of her illness. I’m looking to find the her whole. 

 Trying to remember everyday routines I close my eyes and imagine our “L”shaped kitchen. There, on the far end are sprouting avocado pits held by toothpicks in cups of water on the sill. There, the four burner gas range, the chipped enamel sink, the harvest-gold floor-to-ceiling cabinets, the impossible to read Modernist clock above the noisy Frigidaire. I smell the broom closet, untwist with my mind the endlessly twisted extra long phone cord, and feel the heavy jerky stuckness of the put-everything-here-you-don’t-know-where-it-goes-drawer at the far other end. I see the white formica table and moulded swivel chairs in the center of the room but I don’t see us, or remember arguing with my sister over who set or cleared, or remember eating, or conversations. 

Hundreds, hundreds of hours I cannot recall; are they buried or have they vanished? Maybe tensions I don’t remember were so great I repressed them and need a hypnotist to set them free, or maybe our meals were just too plain to warrant memory. Ever the cook I can summon spare images of things cooking—marinated flank steak on a pan warped from the broilers heat, a roasting pan of chicken parts topped with lemon, and the ever present saucepan simmering, brimming with potatoes, or spaghetti, or stew. This trifecta of pans, these meals with the addition of broccoli or peas or switch in a different vegetable, and tossed salad, were basically it. 

After my mother remarried and I went to college and they moved from the west side to a smaller apartment on the east-side and my mother did less cooking, the saucepan moved to their week-end house upstate. There, the scuffed dented workhorse with its ill-fitting lid took on a patina of calcified lime from the well-water used for boiling, and when it came time years later to sell the house, the pot was relegated to the pile for the auctioneer. The stigma surrounding aluminum cookware and Alzheimer’s, even if discounted by further studies was enough for me to let it go.

Now, I wanted to make mashed potatoes the way my mother made mashed potatoes, and that is when I was hit with the longing that is grief. I couldn’t make potatoes because I didn’t have her pot. Of course I can cook them in my fancy stainless steel, or if I’d wanted to snap a genuine looking photo I could stop by any Salvation Army and pick up something old for nothing, but thats not the point. It is her pot I want and I made the mistake of letting it go.

#rememberingmymotheronebiteatatime tuna fish

It wasn’t everyday but many many days I had tuna salad for lunch. I can take it back to pre-school sitting on the floor in front of our black and white tv watching Romper Room eating mayo heavy tuna on crustless white bread sandwich quarters, and move it forward to middle school when I started making my own school lunches or to high school when it was on toasted whole wheat with added tomato slices, red onion, capers and a layer of crumbled potato chips to keep the bread from getting soggy. 

So few are the memories of cooking with my mother I can count them on my fingers. She taught me to squeeze the water from grated potatoes before frying latkes, to shape meatballs by rolling them between my hands as if they were balls of clay, to pull creamed spinach from a boil-in-bag with bamboo toaster tongs so as not to waste any and also not to burn my fingers, and to finely dice celery for tuna.

Celery was a refrigerator staple. She used it in soups and stews, used the leaves in salad, and fed us stalks filled with cream cheese for snack. I was fascinated by the dirt nestled in the root ends, the fibrous threads, the two part procedure of cutting strips the length of the stalk and then bundling them for the perpendicular cut to dice.

I married a man who didn’t eat mayonnaise and my children wouldn't eat fish so I stopped making tuna salad and ate it only rarely at luncheonettes where it was always disappointing. 

A few weeks after my mother died I made some. I bought imported cruelty-free tuna packed in oil and put it in one of her bowls. I paid special attention to the celery and added onion diced the way she showed me. Once the sandwich was made I couldn’t wait long enough to snap a photo, couldn’t even get it on a plate. From kitchen counter to mouth, then whoosh I was teleported to when I loved my mother and she fed me and nothing else mattered. My hands could barely get the sandwich into me fast enough. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mourning Life

Much to our consternation the last weeks of her life my sister ate only insipid watermelon doled out piece by hopeful piece from a leaky plastic container. The last week she ate nothing save ice chips. I marveled that her body kept going though she wasn’t really living was she, she was dying. Having reached detente with her cancer she’d turned her sight towards death. Losing interest in and giving up food was part of it.

I thought about my sister the other day watching my mother’s aid shovel mayonnaise drenched Kosher “seafood” salad into my mother’s mouth. Catching moments of distraction, she’d deftly cleared my mother’s plate.

Joe, my stepfather, pushes food with exasperated admonishments. “Regina, open your mouth, eat it, eat it” he commands, proffering tidbits from the over abundant glop the assisted living facility serves. His action is loving in a way, and also horrible. Why can’t he leave her be and let her not eat and die if that is what she wants?

Between meals there are 4, 5, 6 pills at a time buried in brimming monkey dishes of cottage cheese or pudding. She has advanced Parkinson’s, dementia, and psychosis (how else could she react to the condition of her life?) Trapped in a body she can barely move and a mind without coherence, the pills regulate, minimize, counterbalance, and make her hallucinate. Once I asked her neurologist what would happen if we took her off the pills and he screamed “What do you think, I’m a murderer?” and slammed down the phone.   

I waltz in once a week with gourmet goodies and sit up close on the walker seat touching knees with my mother who is parked at a table covered with calendar boxes of pills labeled morning, noon, afternoon, evening, night. The table’s festooned with flyers for sing-a-longs, brain teasers, chair aerobics; some of these activities my mother gets wheeled to and better that then nothing though I’ve watched her sit through them, unmoved.

I am feeding her bites of seared duck, hand-pitted Nyon olives, grape tomatoes, feta cheese. The seasons first asparagus cut on a bias and grilled. Today she eats readily, other days not. No one flavor guarantees interest except maybe sweets and even then, not always. I wonder how food tastes to her, if flavors sing in her mouth. I remember a favorite story, the one about an olive (a pimento stuffed manzanilla) on her plate at the first restaurant she’d ever gone to, a Yiddishe pisher fresh off the boat. She didn’t know what the olive was and saved it for her very last bite but the waiter snatched her plate before she ate it and she was too afraid to object. That olive haunted her. Henceforth she ate olives first.

Through lunch I babble about work, my sons, what the dentist said, mostly talking to Joe though I think my mother listens. Now and again she starts to say something but then her voice drops to nothing in the middle of a word in the middle of the sentence, or starts a different sentence or says a string of sounds that are not words at all. I peer at her intently waiting for more, sometimes feeling angry, as if she is asking too much; Speak up I think, say it again, but mostly feel I’ve let her down not piecing her fragments together. “Sorry” I say, “sorry, I don’t know what you are saying—that must feel so bad.”

I am feeding her a thin mint. Joe has left the table and the aid has gone to lunch. It is a rare instance we sit alone and my mother looks at me and says clear as day “Suicide.” Taken aback I wait but she says nothing more. “Its too late Mama. You would have had to do that long ago. Sorry, sorry” I say, “I can’t help you—you must feel so alone.” I wish I'd had the courage to encourage her, wish I'd given her my blessings, but Joe had come back so we said no more.

Gastronomists, neuroscientists and Proust tell us, no matter how buried, when we put something in our mouth, as if saliva translates flavor compounds to poetry, we are flooded with images and thoughts. If we learn to listen to food, our brain hears stories, and it is this that distinguishes us among beasts of prey. But maybe not my mother. Not any more. If her brain can’t listen does the food still talk? Maybe its voice is only a whisper, maybe she can’t answer back. Maybe she forgets mid-bite.

Everything is decided. What she will eat. When she will eat. The order of the bites put in her mouth. Her only choices are what she turns down, and even then forks thrust towards her. For all the care, we are complicit in her suffering. I grasp at the hope the bites at least sing.

Cooking offers refuge and solace. Lately, I’ve been shelling peas and briefly blanched fresh fava beans, braising them with butter lettuce or tender spinach leaves. Shelling is meditative and the flavors holler Spring.

1 pound English peas yields 1 cup shelled peas
1 pound fresh fava beans yields 1/2 c.   
1 pound spinach or lettuce yields approx. 1 cup braised greens
a handful of ramps if they are available
1 T. each: butter and broth
salt and pepper
fresh herbs

Blanche whole fava beans in salted water for 5 minutes. Split pods and remove the beans. Pierce the bean’s second skin with your thumbnail and squeeze out the barely blanched bean.

Sauté peas and trimmed ramps (if using) in 1 T butter with a pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper for 3-5 minutes. Add fava beans and cook 2-3 minutes more.  While peas are cooking, tear lettuce, or stem well washed spinach. Add to pan with a tablespoon of water or broth and stir till wilted. If you’d like, add a handful of fresh mint, flat-leaf parsley or snipped chives.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Round and Round To Move Ahead

  A:   In a fit of unexpected bravery I've signed up for BikeNY’s Bike Basics (for fearful adults.) The last time I’d tried to conquer my resistance coincided with my older son flying off to college—one wobbly ride on a borrowed rusty bike down a quiet road to the beach. If nothing else it gave rise to a poem, a mothers’ musing on taking flight. So much time has passed. Now might be the time to try again.
     In a gym on Roosevelt Island on borrowed bikes we glide without pedals until we can balance for longer, then longer strides. Once mastered the pedals get reattached. We circle and circle, first one direction, then the other. The spokes of the wheels blur in a whirling illusion of solidity. After class, I am limping. Woe the tender creases of my uppermost thigh.
     At the next session we practice looking back over our shoulder and extending a hand to signal a turn. White knuckling the handlebar the effort to release my hand is far too great in the fleeting moment between the backward glance, and the turn itself. Plus there’s the jam of other fearful adults. Round and round, turning my head, glancing but not seeing, almost releasing, finally signaling for a nanosecond. It is ridiculous, I know. Acrid sweat is causing my glasses to slip down my nose. Round and round and the glasses are as precarious as I am and in a flash of cockiness I reach to push them up and find instead I am crashing down and the young volunteer with the Aussie accent is lifting the bike and me and chatting ever so warmly.  Round again a few more times, spinning my wheels. My heart is not in it, nor is it in my throat—my heart is in suspended animation least its beating throw my balance. It is the clock’s ticking towards classes end that circulates my blood.
     Kickstand kicked, helmet in the gunny sack, a sausage shaped welt is throbbing on my shin. I feel beaten. My illusion of control, rent. For now the enormity and discomfort of not knowing trumps any inkling of pride. On the tram crossing the river I practice yogic breath. Back on ground in Midtown, standing on a street corner in chill winter sunshine I tear the skin from an orange, then with sticky fingers pull apart a hunk of pumpkin apple bread, swallowing cake as if gasping for air. Later, ravenous before supper, I polish off some ice cream straight from the tub. 

B:    Standing at the cutting board, again with dull knives and I think as I have thought for weeks, no months, I will take them to the sharpener any day. And I think if only I were better with my knives. And I think, if only I practiced more. Wait, am I kidding? I cook every day. I know to get precise cuts there is wasteful trimming—I won’t do that. Then slices—mine are never even. Then julienne, a few at a time perfectly aligned, cut perpendicular into dice. Instead I stack too many, skew them in my fingers’ grip resulting in trapezoidal approximations. Or take chicken—my knife glides through some of the joints but has never mastered the one between the wishbone and the wing. Its a perpetual hack job. 
      There are things I know but don’t do, things I don’t know and won’t do. Things I might try. With the knife what’s missing is a deft, rhythmic clarion of the blade upon the board which comes from practice, and suffering an awkwardness of posture, a kind of coordination I will not, perhaps cannot master. Dare I let go the interminable buzz of what I should do, that constant judgmental fret? Dinner gets on the table. The cuts, though imprecise, are fine.

C.   At a meditation retreat at the local Zendo periods of zazen (sitting meditation) are interspersed with kinhin (walking meditation.) I’m listening to the bells, mimicking the bows. I suppose knowing where hands should rest and eyes focus and the ordering of time frees the mind. To me the formalities are spectacle.
     By all appearance we sit in stillness. Inside, a whirlwind circles my brain, breath, heart, gut, yoni, toes; the vortex contains me. Thoughts escape. I wrangle them back—you, and you, oh you again.
     The revelation is the snaking loop of kinhin which in the past I have despised—the hyperconscious tedium of one foot before the other in mind-numbing slow-motion. But here I am running to keep up, amazed by the gap before me, worried least I hold up those behind. Expanding. Contracting. Round and round, seeing faces, feet, gait, a part of the community and apart from it. At each round I anticipate glancing out the window at the far end of the room—an eleventh story vista I can’t quite take in because we are moving so swiftly, but still, the view is there. Maybe this time I will see more. Maybe this time. This one. Hello hopefulness, you again?  

D:  Days pass. Sitting with this story rising thoughts get lassoed, then corralled into notes. Round and round. What stays, what goes? The trick is finding balance. Maybe the trick is trust, or maybe just sticking with it.   
     On that street corner after biking my fingers were a mama bird feeding cake to my gaping mouth, soothing ruffled feathers, quelling a hunger borne of risk; a circle of its own, mother and mothered in one. Eating defiantly, lustily, indulgently, shameless. The taste of the cake created a memory that will outlast the incident with the bike. The flavor of the cake, and the act of eating it holds the emotion words only circle. I thought there was a way to break free of the circles, that if I mastered the circle I could then take flight.  Now I see its how the circle gets filled. 

Ellen Gray’s Pumpkin Apple Bread
yield: 2 loaves

3 cups AP flour (sometimes I use part whole wheat)
3/4 t. salt
2 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 t. freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 t. ground cloves
15 oz. canned pumpkin
3/4 cup canola oil
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 cups chopped apples (to peel or not to peel… that is the question)
Two greased/floured 9x5 inch pans. Pre heat oven to 350.

Sift together dry ingredients. Whisk together oil, sugar, pumpkin and eggs. Add dry to egg mixture in thirds. Fold in apples. If you’d like, sprinkle 1 t. demerara sugar over the top. Bake about 55 min.