Archive for August, 2011

Forgetting to remember

August 22, 2011

My dad died 17 years ago, on August 20, 1994, at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, during my parents’ annual Truro vacation. I usually pay attention to that date.

Judaism prescribes specific rituals for marking the anniversary of a parent’s death. There’s a 24-hour yahrzeit candle to be lit. A special prayer to stand up and recite at the daily synagogue service. It’s customary for the mourner to make a charitable contribution in memory of the loved one.

The yahrzeit date doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar, but the Jewish, lunar one. For my Dad, that means Elul 13, the date that coincided with August 20 the year he passed away. Just in case I’m not paying attention to the Jewish calendar, my synagogue sends me a reminder. His yahrzeit this year falls on September 12.

The August date feels more real to me. It means summer vacation. Last year David and I were in Denmark. Two years before that, we were visiting my brother and his family at the Cape. There is no script for marking this secular date. I usually mention it to the people I’m with. On and off throughout the day, I’ll feel my father’s presence.

Last year, having a beer at a bar inCopenhagen, I remembered how sophisticated I felt, at eight, braving a sip of Daddy’s Tuborg when we visited Denmark in the summer of 1965. The year we were with my brother, there was no way not to remember our father at the beach – reading a Dick Francis paperback, noshing on roasted peanuts and burying the shells in the sand, joking with his friends, briefly braving the water, his arms splayed spasmodically as the cold surf surged over his swim trunks.

This year, I didn’t realize what day it was until it was over. We had just returned from visiting our son in Red Hook, New York. We toured Southwood Farm, where Sam has been working since February: pigs, chickens, a cow and her calf, a horse, Sam’s dog, goats, sheep, turkeys, vegetables, and a glorious view of the Hudson with the Catskills beyond.

“Sam’s great,” his boss told us, and ticked off his accomplishments. That was nice. It’s been a while since our last back-to-school night.

We ate dinner at a fantastic Italian restaurant, our table set up on the front porch of an old house.

The next morning we strolled around Rokeby Farm, where Sam and his roommates rent the 18th-century gardener’s house. We skipped stones on the surface of the river and checked out his landlady’s daughter’s CSA.

We packed two coolers full of happy meat from Southwood: goat, pig, ducks.

Lunch was delicious burritos from a cart beside a farm stand. We ate sitting on a blanket in a spot of shade over looking rolling fields, where a farmer was making hay.

On the way home, we visited the Circle Museum, at the side of Route 22 in Austerlitz. We’ve passed it lots of times, and always wanted to stop. At 40 mph, the place looks like a bunch of junk insanely recast as over-sized lawn ornaments. Exploring on foot reveals a dreamscape of industrial debris ingeniously fashioned into fanciful sculpture. We’ve got a spot in our backyard that’s just waiting for one of these pieces.

And where, in all this, was my father? He would have kvelled as much as we did to hear Sam praised. He would have been interested in seeing Southwood, but too hungry and nervous about our dinner reservation to really enjoy the visit. The dinner he would have adored. He wouldn’t have had much patience for our walk around Rokeby, but he would have loved talking to the other people who live there. The goat we brought home might have made him nervous. At the Circle Museum, I’m guessing he would have waited in the car.

But afterwards, on the beach with his friends, say, he would have told the story of what a quirky, fascinating place the Hudson Valley has become. And he would have shaken his head in amazement at his remarkable grandson, who lives so close to the land and works so well with his hands – so different from the way my father lived.

For us, it wasn’t a weekend for recalling old memories and reliving the past. It was a time for laying down new ones, and imagining the future. It would have been that for my father, too.

Mixed Blessings

August 18, 2011

This month’s column in The Jewish Voice and Herald. Much of it is recycled from previous posts, so if you’re a regular reader of this blog, it may look familiar. Next post will be more original. I promise.
Our family had a wedding last month. Following her mother’s example, my daughter married a mensch. Like my husband, my son-in-law is a sweet, smart, dependable guy who makes good jokes, loves to cook, and comes from a loving family that happens not to be Jewish. Like my mother when I got married, I happily endorsed my daughter’s choice, and hoped her nuptials would honor her Jewish upbringing.

“As long as it’s a Jewish wedding,” my mother said. She didn’t need an “or else.” We wanted to please her. Besides, I wanted a Jewish wedding, too. For her, and me, having a rabbi officiate was a promise about her future grandchildren. David didn’t object, and neither did his parents – they had grown up in a Zoroastrian home in India and a Methodist one in Iowa, but raised their own kids religion-free.

My mother selected the flowers, planned the menu and found the rabbi. “Just do the standard Jewish ceremony,” we told him, and that’s what he did. After he left, David’s mother performed a Zoroastrian blessing.

Sophie and Henry wanted to organize their own wedding. And they didn’t want to include a rabbi. “As long as it’s not on a Saturday,” I said. When they asked which Jewish elements I’d like included in the ceremony, the answer wasn’t obvious. I considered the huppah, the wine, the Seven Blessings, the broken glass. I didn’t want to see any of them thrown in just for flavor. What universal meanings could we uncover within these specific symbols?

The wedding took place on a Sunday, at a camp on a lake south of Boston. A friend of Sophie and Henry’s officiated, certified for the occasion by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The huppah was a bedspread crocheted by Henry’s Protestant great-great grandmother, supported by poles Sophie’s brother Sam fashioned from driftwood. Henry’s mother brought roses to memorialize three pairs of grandparents. Indian designs stenciled in on the floorboards in chalk dust marked the specialness of the space, and the occasion.

We sang a Unitarian hymn Henry’s mom remembers hearing when she was pregnant. Readings included excerpts from the decision that made marriage equality legal in Massachusetts and Charles Darwin’s notes on whether to marry (con: less money for books; pro: a soft wife on the sofa). A friend sang a stunning aria by Bellini.

Following the vows and the exchange of rings, guests read the Seven Blessings, which I had reconstructed for the occasion. Sophie and Henry don’t believe in God, and didn’t want anything in the ceremony to suggest that marriage is only for heterosexuals.  But they do value gratitude and working for the good. So the blessing over wine became, “Blessed be the fruit of the vine, symbol of our joy.” The one about God creating Man in his image drew on the divine attributes mentioned in Exodus  – “Blessed be compassion, graciousness, patience, kindness and truth, and all that humans should strive for.”

The traditional blessings’ mentions of Zion and Jerusalem suggested a particularism that Sophie and Henry wanted to avoid. I took the blessing that imagines Zion as an abandoned mother welcoming home her long-lost children, and universalized its underlying message about a dispersed community longing for reunion: “May joy and exultation fill this gathering. Blessed are we when families and friends are reunited and friends become family.” Mentions of “groom and bride” were changed to “grooms and brides,” to include homosexual as well as heterosexual couples.

After the seventh blessing, the couple shared wine from Sophie’s Kiddush cup – her bat mitzvah gift from the Sisterhood at our former shul. Then David’s mother joined them under the huppah and performed the same Zoroastrian blessing she gave us when we married. A silver tray held a variety of symbols: rice for plenty; spices for savoring life; betel nut for life’s bitter passages (with hopes that these be few); fruits and sugar for times of sweetness (with hopes that these be many). She hung flower garlands around Sophie and Henry’s necks, marked their foreheads with red paste and tossed rice over them. To ward off evil, she broke an egg at their feet.

Then their officiating friend pronounced them married, they stomped on a pair of wine glasses, and everyone applauded.

Would I have been happier if my daughter had had a fully Jewish wedding? Not if she didn’t care about the ritual. While David and I just followed a script, Sophie and Henry thought about what they were doing, and made sure they meant what was said. The ceremony they designed reflected what they believe and what they’re like: thoughtful, honest, caring and fun. I can’t think of better ingredients for beginning a marriage.

 


 

What’s that smell?

August 15, 2011

It started with this musty smell in the kitchen. We first noticed it earlier this summer. It was worst on humid days, and strongest near the trash bin. Taking the trash out didn’t help, and neither did scrubbing the plastic bin, itself. So yesterday we (well, David) removed the wooden frame that slides the bin under the counter, and all the other drawers in that cabinet.

When we shined a flashlight into opening, we found some very, very dirty floorboards. But no dead mouse or decomposing peach. (I should probably mention that we have an old kitchen. We think the last time it was updated was 30 years ago. The bead board  and most of the drawers and cabinetsdate back to around 1900, when the house was built.)

We (well, David) scrubbed the floorboards with a bleach mixture, and then with a wood cleaner. The rinse water came up just as filthy each time, but after several go-overs we (well, David) decided enough was enough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

My real point, though, is those drawers. Having them sitting out in the open gave us a chance to really look inside them – something we haven’t done since we moved in, four years ago. The silverware and food wraps and dish towels each have their own space, and that makes sense. But three other drawers hold our over-stock of spices – jars and boxes and bags that don’t fit in our go-to cabinet beside the stove.

“Maybe this would be a good time to do some weeding,” David suggested, and I reluctantly agreed. And oh, what we found.

–The last teaspoon of herbes de Provence from our South of France vacation in 2006.

–A vanilla bean from the house in Rochester David’s parents sold that same year.

–The lifetime supply of dried chiles given to David by my mother, who in February, 1999.

–A  jam jar filled with black salt, an ingredient used in Indian cooking, though in none of the recipes we ever make.

–A  jar of chervil from which all scent expired years ago. Ditto a jar of green peppercorns.

–The same plastic container of garam masala David and his parents used to secretly plant in each other’s possessions – a game no one has played in at least five years.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We threw some stuff away, though probably not nearly as much as we should have. The whole exercise reminded me – a little too much – of a scene from LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, the novel my agent is currently shopping. Adam’s mother has died, and he’s hired Kitty Klein, a professional estate liquidator, to help him dispose of the family home.

_______________________

Kitty Klein wears a fancy gray hat and shiny black boots that hug her calves like ballroom gloves. Her long red fingernails make it all the more unbelievable when, after her I’m-sorry-we-couldn’t-meet-under-happier-circumstances handshake and before Adam finally manages to jimmy open the door he has never before had any trouble opening, she announces, “I’m a roll-up-the-sleeves gal. Do everything myself. If you want something done right, you know what I’m saying?”

Inside the kitchen, she pulls a notebook and a pen from her suitcase-sized handbag and starts opening cabinets and drawers and stirring through the unopened mail. “Your mother was sentimental, wasn’t she?” She says delicately extracts from the paper slush a laminated name tag Mouse wore at a convention she attended sometime in the nineties. “A keeper.”  Kitty’s nose twitches. She sets the name tag back down as if it were some frail archeological shard. “They’re the hardest.”

“The hardest in terms of what?” Adam asks, helplessly tracking her tight-lipped inspection of the aluminum-foil pans amassed against Armageddon, the expired spices in their dusty bottles, the ten-year archive of handwritten holiday menus hanging beside the stove from a grease-encrusted string.

“Letting go.” She writes something down on her pad, then taps her perfect white teeth with her pen. “The kitchen definitely has potential.”

“For what?”

“To be something really special. A little paint. New appliances. Reface the cabinets. But the buyer would have to have some imagination.”

________

Adam and Kitty are products of my imagination, but the kitchen is definitely my mother’s – which sometimes smelled a little musty, too. Some things just linger, no matter how much you scrub.

Opening the river

August 11, 2011

Big doings in Pawtuxet Village. They’re taking down the dam above the falls, where thePawtuxetRiverflows into the harbor, and from there toNarragansett Bay. The first dam was wooden, built in the 1700s. The current, concrete dam has been in place since the 1920s. Restoring the river to its pre-Colonial condition will allow herring and other fish to swim upriver and spawn. Better sex for smallish fish will mean better eating for bigger fish and birds.

I’ve been hearing that same story again and again this week – parents explaining it to their children, grown children explaining it to their elderly parents, neighbor explaining it to neighbor, as we all stand on the bridge watching the work going on below. Besides making a good story and providing a nice science lesson, the dam-removal project turns out to be a great spectator sport.

Three men wearing hard hats, safety vests, surfer bathing suits, and water shoes stroll across the dam like high-wire walkers, wade through the water, and sometimes swim as they move orange booms around, attach enormous chains to two-ton sandbags, or jimmy blue steal plates into position. A backhoe rolls like a tank through the water, up rocks and over rubble, tugs and lifts and lowers equipment into place, or scoops debris from the river bottom. When the gigantic pneumatic drill is attached to the arm, it drills into the concrete, breaking it up like a dentist’s drill shattering a rotten molar.

And all the while the river flows around the construction site, glassy-smooth above the dam, and white-water rippling below it. It makes a lovely sound. I’ve stood on this same bridge lots of times before. But until now I never realized how much the contours of the river – the amount of rock exposed, the speed of the rapids – changes with the tide.

The spectators chat, point, take pictures, line up to buy cones at the ice cream shop conveniently located beside the bridge. The atmosphere is festive, friendly, interested. Just about everyone seems to approve of the project. If it’s good for the fish, it’s fine with them.

Who knew you could generate so much excitement just by letting the river flow?

Where Was I?

August 8, 2011

I was talking to my friend Roma the other day, and she asked, “How’s the writing going?”

Writing? What writing?

I’ve been working on a new novel since January or so. By the beginning of June, I was about a third of the way through a first draft. I had been sending bits of it to my critique partner every other week, and she had been cheering me on, saying how much she was enjoying it, asking useful questions and pushing me to do my best writing. Then life interfered with my schedule. What with the trip to France and Sophie’s wedding and David’s parents’ visit, I spent at least a month away from my book.

Life got back to normal about a week ago. But after that long hiatus, I was a little nervous about getting back to my book. What if it sucked? And what was I supposed to be writing about, anyway?

David suggested that rather than trying to dive right back in, I take a day or two to read what I’d written. Sensible advice. How could I move forward unless I knew where I was?

But there’s reading, and there’s reading.

I read Chapter One quite happily. Man, this is good, I told myself. Did I really write that? Chapter Two was sort of a let down, though. And so was Chapters Three. Chapter Four wasn’t so great, either. And neither was Chapter Five. I was about ready to toss out the whole thing when I got to Chapter Six. I remembered really liking that one at the time. And re-reading it all that time later, I still did. And Chapter Seven, thankfully, also didn’t make me want to give it all up.

So maybe I didn’t really suck so much, after all. But the thought of tackling Chapter Eight was still pretty daunting. For a few days, I deleted more than I wrote. That’s when Roma called.

“I was in a situation like that once, and my good friend Ruth once gave me some really good advice,” she said.

“Oh yeah? What was that?” I knew what she was going to say, but I needed to hear it.

“Turn off the critic,” she reminded me. “Just put in the time and let yourself write without worrying about whether it’s any good or not. Eventually it will be.”

(Here’s a taste of one of the chapters that didn’t make me want to give it all up.)

Rhyme Light

August 5, 2011

I might have missed Kay Ryan altogether, if it hadn’t been for my father-in-law. Even though she was U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008-2010 and her 2010 collection, The Best of It, won a Pulitzer, Ryan’s name didn’t mean anything to me until Roger pointed out her poem in the July 25 issue of The New Yorker (the one with the two brides on the cover).

Roger, who is 85, keeps his brain sharp by memorizing poetry. He’s been a fan of Ryan’s for a while.  Her poems are easy-ish to memorize because they’re short, he explained. And they’re hard-ish to memorize, because they don’t rhyme. Well, they don’t rhyme in the conventional way, anyway. (More on that later.)

I always like discovering a new poet, so when I stopped by the going-out-of-business sale at my local Border’s, I picked up Ryan’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection.

What a fun book! Ryan’s poems are easy-ish to understand, because they use plain, clear language. And they’re hard-ish to grasp all at once, because their simple surfaces can twist around and surprise you with an insight you never expected, and might not have even recognize until after the whole thing has had a chance to settle in. Here’s a nice one:

The Hinge of Spring

The jackrabbit is a mild herbivore

grazing the desert floor,

quietly abridging spring,

eating the color off everything

rampant-height or lower.

Rabbits are one of the things

coyotes are for. One quick scream,

a few quick thumps,

and a whole little area

shoots up blue and orange clumps.

Ryan’s bio on poets.org quotes poet J.D. McClatchy, who calls her poems “compact, exhilarating, strange affairs, like Erik Satie miniatures or Joseph Cornell boxes.”  He also compares her to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost.

Ryan’s poems are often described as funny. In a 2008 interview with The Paris Review, she says, “When I read my poems to any audience there’s a lot of laughing, but I always warn them that it’s a fairy gift and will turn scary when they get it home.”  What she means, I think, is that her poems aren’t so much funny ha-ha, as funny aha.

Those funny aha moments often come from her use of clichés. For a fancy-shmancy poet, she’s awfully fond of them, along with malapropisms, and other well-used idioms whose inherent metaphors are usually overlooked. An example she mentions in the Paris Review is limelight, which comes from the days before electric light. “[T]hey heated lime, or calcium oxide, to create incandescence for stage lights,” she says. In her poem “Lime Light,” Her poem, “Lime Light” misinterprets the term.

One can’t work

by lime light.

A bowlful

right at

one’s elbow

produces no

more than

a baleful

glow against

the kitchen table.

The fruit purveyor’s

whole unstable

pyramid

doesn’t equal

what daylight did.

What did daylight do? Produce those limes, for one thing. And what else? The ability to see those limes?  Such a seemingly simple poem leaves you with so much to think about.

As someone who writes (and spells) primarily by ear, what I really love here is how she plays with sound. These fifteen brief lines offer a feast of alliteration: one / work, lime / light,  purveyor’s / pyramid, doesn’t / daylight / did. And listen to the internal rhymes! Bowlful, elbow / produces / glow / whole, bowlful / baleful, table / unstable, lime light / daylight. The fact that you have to tease the echoes from what appears at first glance to be pretty plain speech makes discovering them that much more satisfying.

Ryan explains that when she started writing in the 1970s, rhymes were out of favor, but they kept coming to her “without…permission.” So she jammed them in odd spots, where they help to hold the poem together without calling too much attention to themselves. She calls her rhymes “recombinant,” an approach she says is “like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.”

Lest you miss that extra glow, Ryan often ends her poems with a rhyme – a device that might take you by surprise, and send then send you back in search of the rhymes you might have missed. That’s what happens in “The Hinge of Spring,” above, and here:

Forgetting

Forgetting takes space.

Forgotten matters displace

as much anything else as

anything else. We must

skirt unlabeled crates

as though it made sense

and take them when we go

to other states.

Speaking of forgetting, my father-in-law might be interested to know that Ryan doesn’t memorize her own poems. She has a very bad memory for poetry, she says.

Suck-o-tash

August 3, 2011

I have never been a fan of the lima bean. Their grainy texture and slightly metallic flavor have always struck me as, well, gross. When I was a kid, vegetables were a mandatory part of every supper, and lima beans were in the regular rotation, along with spinach, broccoli, string beans, cauliflower and peas (with or without accompanying cubes of wan carrot)  — all frozen into uniform bricks that could easily be stacked in the freezer door. Sometimes my mother served the lima beans alone, but, as I remember it, they usually appeared on the dinner plate combined with corn, as succotash.

Succotash. Could any food word be less appetizing? In a story I wrote many years ago, a bratty teenager pushes the stuff back and forth on her plate for a while before saying to her mother, “Suck-o-tash.” Her father sends her to her room.

Now that I’m all grown up, I pride myself on my adventurous eating. Hot peppers? Bring ‘em on. Chicken feet? No problem. Duck penis tongue? Um, okay.

So when I saw fresh lima beans at the supermarket this morning, I figured it was time to give them another try. They looked so lovely in their pods. And they were so fresh! If they had any hope of tasting good, this was their chance. I circled back and picked up an ear of corn. Today was the day I would take the suck out of the ‘tash.

I popped the beans from their pods and steamed them for about five minutes, until they were fork tender. Meanwhile, in a separate pan, I brought half an inch of water to a boil under the shucked corn, and then turned the burner off and let it sit. When both veggies were ready, I shaved the kernels from the cob, combined them with the drained lima beans, and added plenty of butter, salt and pepper.

The corn was great, but the beans tasted terrible. They were this awful chewy texture, and this really ugly gray – closer to the frozen atrocities of my childhood than the happy green legumes I’d envisioned. Looking more closely, I noticed that the surface of the beans was wrinkled and loose. D’oh! Lima beans have a tough skin that has to be removed, like fava beans.

Within a few minutes, my fingers were greasy with butter and salt, a pile of empty skins was mounded beside the pot, and the lima beans were silky smooth and a satisfying deep green. I grabbed my fork and dug in. Still sorta meh.

Undeterred, I mixed through some chopped scallions, squeezed on half a lime, and threw in a handful of cherry tomatoes from my backyard. Then I plated the concoction, poured myself a glass of wine, and took my dinner out to the porch.

The succotash was very pretty, with the delicate corn and the bright tomatoes and the deep green beans. The corn was sweet and the tomato was tart. As for the beans, they were silky. And, when I isolated them from the rest of the ingredients and really concentrated on the taste, they were actually kind of gross, in an unpleasant, metallic way. Just like the lima beans I remember.

My Latest Limb

August 1, 2011

When my sister and my aunt stopped over at our house on the way home from the wedding, they brought one of the best house gifts ever.

Mike found this doll’s leg on the beach near where she lives onLong Island, ran it through the wash with her clothes, and presented it to me just as it was when the load finished.

The doll it came from must have been high quality. The leg has more heft than most plastic doll limbs, and the shape of the thigh and knee and foot are unusually well articulated. Like all good doll limbs, the knee and toe knuckles are dimpled. Something broken inside rattles when you shake it.

Somewhere between separating from the rest of its body and washing up at my sister’s feet, it encountered some sort of oil slick. I love the mottled patina the tar has left in the plastic, which is perfectly smooth to the touch. The suggestion of dirt between the toes is sweet. Traces of salt have left a vague map on the calf.

I like thinking about what this leg might have been through – the surf it tumbled through, the sand that scraped it, the living things that nosed it, the oil it encountered.

Most of all, though, I love the fact that it found its way to my sister, who knows me well enough to have spotted something most people would probably mistake for trash, and recognized it as the prize it is.