We’ve rewritten what being a flag-toting patriotic American means.
We’ve rewritten what being a flag-toting patriotic American means.
My neck crooked to one side in response to the tight and twisting hold she had on my hair, her nails digging at the roots; my mother was particularly expert at inflicting pain in several areas at once. She raised bloody welts on my thigh with the wooden spoon with her free hand. Saliva sprayed from my blubbering lips; I was choking with fright and gagging on my tears. Some minor infraction brought it on, this time it was the music. I played the New World Symphony one time too many… I had a blue and white folding, portable record player and had checked out the heavy Dvorak LP from the St. George Library.
I was memorizing the flute part so that my Saturday morning practice would sail by- the borough-wide orchestra was playing the symphony at its concert that spring, 1968. I really don’t know what was worse; the nasty grip on my scalp, the pain in my neck, or the realization that my record player and the pre-vinyl disc were now in pieces on the sidewalk below my bedroom window. I loved that machine. It usually sat on my window sill, playing the White Album, The Singing Nun, Dusty Springfield, the Stones or Mozart- the combination characterizing the mess I was in- a freak in my family, a gangly overlong 14 year old with passionate crushes on dead poets and my father’s friends. I believed her insults too readily. What the hell was I on earth for anyway? My life didn’t jive with my Sunday School lessons. I clearly remember saying to her face that I was sure she didn’t give birth to me, how could any woman be so hateful to their own baby? I saw myself, even at 14 as a baby.
When I was able to slip out of her lock and the voice became more distant and she grew distracted by the little kids, I roller-skated fast away, down the slate sidewalks, instead of braving the tar bubbles on the street. I became an Olympic roller queen, flying past Westerleigh Park, noting which streets had cobblestones to steer clear of their ankle jamming crevasses. It took about 15 minutes of determined sprinting on wheels to reach my grandmother’s house. Collapsed in her kitchen I never mentioned what terror held me captive just a short time earlier. With a cold Fresca in my newly washed hands I moved in on the action at the table. It could easily have been the NY Times crossword, but more likely it was rolling spongy rich dough flat enough to cut into rounds, dip into melted butter, and then align them in careful rows to become Parker House rolls. Each one is perfectly folded into a half moon, just overlapping its neighbor enough to leave a lovely un-crusted spot on its spine once baked.
How exquisite it was to arrange those perfect 2 inch scallops on the greased and floured pan, soon to be golden, warm and sweet. What perfection in order, what control, what harmony, what love at the table.
When my own children lose the thread of why they’re here, or why we’re a family, I’m tempted to spill all the details. I am too often lost in worry about them. It’s a damn folly to expect one’s children to understand why they shouldn’t waste any time together fighting, why they must notice how much they are loved every single day, why they must understand how lucky they are. Its not folly to expect them to do it because you say they have to. I don’t miss any opportunity to do so.
My grandmother met the man she would marry when she was 15, a young and precocious flapper, already finished with high school and hard to keep at home. Greenwich Village hosted too many parties with expatriate countesses, gin soaked revolutionaries on the run from their dorms at Princeton, socialists with fingers ink stained from handing out their bulletins in the squares and of course, young women on the move with just a ferry ride between them and home. Arm in arm with her friend Coralie, 5 years her senior who had already convinced her to ride in Lindbergh’s plane, she danced all night at a rent party and one man followed them home to the Stuyvesant hotel. Her mother owned it and made her own living. She had to make up for her husband’s infrequent paychecks. (He was spending them in China, the Philippines, wherever the early 20th century sent the US Navy. She knew he was supporting other women, and other daughters.)
Martha was sent to Canada to spend some time with the aunts and to get her away from him. Two years later they married. The flapper became the wife of a traveling salesman and semipro golfer and she set up house at the hotel. She had three kids, suffered through the illness and death of her only son from leukemia, and patched the family back together with her kindness, hospitality and cooking. For 35 years she also nursed and buried her mother, her aunts, her grandmother, her husband and then her youngest child who was only 33 and who left 3 kids of her own. As a 15 year old on the run I spent as much time as I wanted at her house. She was a master of getting a teenager to talk and work at the same time. We had two stations at the kitchen table: on one side I was polishing all of her silver: spoons, candy dishes, bud vases; on the other she made pies, apple or strawberry rhubarb and parker house rolls. I boasted about riding my bike to the Village and talked endlessly about who lived at the Chelsea Hotel, the sound checks at the Café Wha? and the poets at Wilentz’s 8th St. Bookshop. I was oblivious to how I might have been a pest at any of these places. Saturday after Saturday, I travelled farther, deeper into the neighborhoods bursting at the seams with beatniks crossing worn paths with hippies and the next decade’s intellectuals. She listened, bemused and absorbed and I’m sure now I was a tonic for her. What love she had for me. She never competed and let me run with my own discoveries and thrills. I never knew about her own Village adventures until much later. I’m her grateful namesake.
My grandfather was from a small place on the west coast of northern Norway called Tengelfjord, part of the Lofoten Island archipelago. We made a red X on the globe so we could easily find it if our dad wasn’t home to show us. Each time I looked I shivvered thinking of more than 8 feet of snow all winter and tunneling out of the house to get to the loo, or to ski to the nearest neighbor.
His memory’s visions of reindeer scraping their antlers on his father’s blacksmith shop’s doors, gorging himself on moltebaer ( Molter-the prized golden cloudberries all Norwegians carve into their food and family conscience,) the mountain’s slope pink with ling heather, red fox running along the shoreline at sunset and cod fish fairly leaping from the water of the Raftsundet into your boat were almost lost on me because my mind was fixated on what seemed like total deprivation and 6 months of winter and darkness. The images stayed theoretical until I took a trip to his old house. Our cousins maintain it as a holiday cottage and I spent many summer evenings there, picking heather, pumping water, gathering berries, fishing and bathing in streams, and foraging for mushrooms.
The best breakfast I’ve ever had was at 5 in the morning, after a long twilight-filled night seeking those mushrooms, fishing for trout, stumbling into watery sinkholes in the spongy moss, watching for meteors, drinking too much Aquavit and singing Hank Williams songs in Norwegian. Fried trout, the perfumed mushrooms I swear were chanterelles (which in Norwegian are called sopp,) eggs and black coffee. Does it get much better than that? Perhaps only if you add the warm vafler waiting for you once you arrive back home.
I was married in 1978. I thought I was an adult, old enough, and that I certainly wanted to be married to my constant companion, although, everyone must ask at some point: what the hell were we thinking? Just like any leap over a divide; you hope that the ground on the other side is solid rock…not sinking sand, as the hymn goes. Our wedding day was a blur; now its not, but up close then, I barely knew it was over until my father said:”Don’t you two have someplace to go?” The pavilion, the birch branches lashed to the uprights with miles of white ribbon, picnic tables, rock music, a Norwegian fiddler and accordianist, Mozart, champagne corks, my sisters giggling, no ties on the groom and best man, flowers in our hair, the Presbyterian minister who forgot the prayers, my broken sandal, the softball game, the pot smoking in the trees, my mother buying my sisters white dresses to wear as bridesmaids instead of the flowered ones I wanted, my intoxicated friends forgetting they were supposed to drive us home, the best man cruising my best friend, the groom forgetting he was supposed to dance with me and then…the Kransekake- the two massive towers of baked almond paste rings stacked over 4 feet high, decorated with yellow roses and lacy icing drizzled on the layers. Chris says he didn’t even eat any of it and its a family joke now- as though somehow the contract remains un-consecrated, un-consummated, incomplete. We have two boys. That they might come along was definitely not on my horizon that day. The face I kept seeing was my dad’s, 46, almost completely wheelchair bound, tired of his struggle to be strong, the breadwinner, the robust leader of the clan he created. I kept looking back, over my shoulder, catching his eyes. “Yes, I’m really doing this, its time, you’ve done all you could, you’ve been great.” And it was there – his elation and pride, his realization that this would be the only wedding of one of his kids he’d witness and enjoy. How is it possible I’ve passed him by? I’m taking my oldest on college visits this month. I can remember my dad’s thrill when he brought home that first Texas Instruments calculator, it cost him over $100, and he was bursting with it, recounting whatever he’d read in Scientific American about the coming electronic age. This 16 year old who looks so much like him takes it all for granted and wants more. So, here we go. How is it that it took me this long to realize its more than half over?
Chefs love to speculate about their death row meals. Like the NPR show Desert Island Discs the exercise focuses on some essentials- what couldn’t you live without if you had a choice? Or, what one meal would you choose if it were the last one you’d enjoy (although- how can you enjoy it knowing what’s on the other side of the door?) Anthony Bourdain talks about his last best meal all the time- the other day, on an episode of No Reservations, he was gushing about marrow bones. I’ve got mine- a revolving file of gravlaks, Norwegian rye, capers, cruelly iced vodka, or warm scones with crystallized ginger and clotted cream and a pot of Keemun tea, or pot roast, pickled red cabbage and egg noodles, or a massive platter of broccoli di rape, toasted garlic, olive oil, penne and shaved pecorino and a bottle of Brunello. I figure- delay the hangman, the pardon’s coming. But can’t I also choose my dinner companion? Assuming I’m not the mother of two teenage boys who should have figured out how to spring me, I choose Fiona Shaw. Last week at the Berlind Theater in Princeton, NJ she gave a “talk-back.” Was it just that? It was a two hour walk with humour, brains and heart through theater and literary history- at least from Shakespeare to Ibsen. Some of it was a reprise of an early conversation she had with Charlie Rose. Even so- animated, hysterically witty, generous and brilliant- she seduced us all. I crave being under the spell of Fiona whether she’s Medea, Winnie, Celia, Elektra, Richard II, and even Aunt Petunia. I think I’ll cook the pasta.