pull up a chair

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Category: family history

lost in the cobwebs…almost.

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it’s been one of those weeks that’s found me sifting through drawers, sifting through history, following threads hither and yon.

there’s a particular drawer, in the old pine writing table across the way from here where i sit, and it might as well be my holy of holies. it’s where i stash particular love letters, and every mass card from every funeral of someone i’ve loved. it’s where, apparently, i’ve stashed the polaroid snapshots of my firstborn lying bruised and bloodied in a hospital bed in the children’s hospital ICU, the day after he flew from his bike and broke his neck. and where i’ve tucked the recording of my then-little one’s long-ago phone machine greeting, a delectable slur of words that always left callers confounded — and me charmed, beyond words.

it’s been one of those weeks where threads seem to be pulling me this way, then that. one question leads to a search. another leads to the creaky old stairs that unfold from the attic.

i’ve been discovering shards and treasures all week. i’ve bumped into more questions than answers. why, oh why, do i have a silver coin from 1909, one with abe lincoln’s buIMG_9236st on the front, and on the back the words, “for merit in an essay on abraham lincoln”? who won this, and where is this prize-winning essay? and how did the coin come to be in my drawer? might it be from my grandmama mae, the irish school teacher who bore my sweet papa? might my love of words flow directly through her bloodline? and might my boys’ love of abe be their genetic inheritance?

these are the questions that keep me awake. and won’t let me rest till i unearth the answers.

long long ago, standing in the kitchen of the house where i grew up, i remember leaning into my father’s shoulder (he was wearing the navy velour pullover he so often wore, and i can conjure the nub of that cloth even today — 36 years after the moment), and my father spoke these words that have echoed ever since: “you have a real sense of history.” it was one of those moments when suddenly something you’d not known appears as the most obvious truth in your life. my father died less than two months later. so the words became prophetic. the words have become my divining rod. i follow history. i sift through old letters and artifacts. i study old photos, the ones now faded. i try to make sense.

and i can’t bear to let history — to let story or love, for that’s what so much of a history is — crumble to dust in a drawer or the attic.

which is why i was a bit frazzled this week when i realized that years of my old newspaper stories are all but lost in the cobwebs. it’s intricately complicated, i found out, to pluck certain stories from the digital archives. without a date and precise headline, it’s nearly impossible. which means a good 20 years of bylines might never again be unearthed. which, mostly, won’t matter. but among those two decades there are stories that poured straight from my heart, and i can’t bear the thought that they’re never to be pulled to daylight again. they were, each one, a love song to or about someone or something that mattered. they were moments in my story that i’m not ready to bury.

which is why i decided that, every once in a while, when i find one, i’m going to lovingly paste it here, a digital scrapbook of bylines gone by.

this is the first, a love letter, really, to the very fine soul who picked up his hammer and built the nooks and crannies of this old house and the one before it, a construction of love beyond what we’d dreamed.

Being graced by the hand — and soul — of Jim
January 04, 2004|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune staff reporter.

At my house, his name is Jim.

I still remember the first time he walked in, walked in to talk about taking down walls, putting up a dormer. One minute, I’d never seen him before, the next minute, I’d known him all my life.

I still remember standing out by the sidewalk, watching the roof come off our old house, leaning against the wrought-iron gate next door, and he told me, in the most matter-of-fact way, “My dad always said to leave behind a footprint wherever you go.”

Jim leaves footprints. In the form of a box-bay window the architects hadn’t drawn, but that he knew was just what we wanted, to make the trees feel like they stretched right into our room, or, rather, to sweep the window seat right out into the limbs, making a treehouse of what might have been simply a room for a bed.

In the form of drawers that glide in and out as if on Rollerblades, making me feel elegant every time I reached inside for a lumpy old sweater.

In the form of bookshelves that wrapped around me in my little room, making me feel hugged and safe and home — very much at home.

It didn’t take long for all of us to fall in love with Jim & Co. The whole summer they were at our house — Jim and Tom and Bri, the musketeers three — my husband couldn’t wait to vault out of bed and dash over to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where he’d return with a box dripping with sugar and round puffy blobs. My little boy took to sitting on the stairs, watching. He had a big red tool kit that he started lugging around. He put on his safety goggles and he built things in the back yard. Boats. A race car. Bigger boats.

That was at our old house.

I didn’t want to leave it behind because I couldn’t bear to leave behind the magic that Jim had pounded into its walls, its windows, its tucked-away secrets.

Jim, you see, is indispensable, and not just because he wields a mean hammer. Jim is indispensable because what he builds goes far beyond the blue lines you see in the drawings. Jim is indispensable because he knows, without words, the poetry of walls and windows and doors, and all they hold for those of us who hatch our dreams at home like eggs in a nest.

So when we moved, it was pretty simple: We brought Jim with us.

In fact, we bought a house that I could see only through the lens of Jim and all that he could do. I saw right past the ugly tile in the kitchen, the tile someone loved so much they glued it right up the wall once they ran out of the floor. I saw right through the bathrooms with the vanities that looked as if they took three oak trees to build them, they were so big and bulky and in the way.

That was almost a year ago. And in that year, slowly, patiently, whenever he had a minute in between building other people’s houses, he’s been pounding magic into this house, as if it really mattered.

And the point here is: It does matter.

Every single day, most likely for the rest of my life, this house, these walls, these windows, will be the ones that shape my every day. It is within these rooms that I will take in my first waking breath each day and every other breath that forms my every word. It is through these windows that I will look out at the world and drink in the fuel of my dreams. These are the nooks I will curl up in. These are the stairs I will climb, every time it really matters, and plenty of times when it really doesn’t.
But the point is, because his hand is here, everywhere I look I feel his soul, and the soul of something much bigger that speaks to me in a soft still voice, in every room.

Where once upon a time there was a single-car garage, and where after that, just before we moved in, there was brown-striped vinyl wallpaper and nubby carpeting all shredded by a yappy dog, there are now floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookcases, and two window seats that stretch out beneath the windows. It is nearly a re-creation of the little tiny room of my dreams I had to leave behind in the house that is no longer ours.

Only this one is better, because I get to stay here forever, and because Jim & Crew pretty much built it from memory, trying to mend the heart that got wrenched in the move.

By the time we’re finished, pretty much every room is going to be graced by the hand of Jim. He’s building a corner cabinet for all the books my little boy has yet to read, and I have visions of us curled up for hours there, for years and years to come. He’s already built a wall of bookshelves for my husband, a wall that could only be called majestic, so elegant and mighty as its fine-honed pilasters reach for the ceiling, and hold my husband’s anchor in the world, his library of books about all the ideas he treasures most.

My 2-year-old, who picked out shoes at the shoe store because they look just like Jim’s, took on a refrain this summer that pretty much echoed the truth in all our hearts. He walked around the house, and whenever he noticed anything amiss, he proclaimed matter-of-factly: “Jim fix it.”

Jim, he fixes everything. And not just with his hammer.

and, now, that one is saved, tucked away in my treasure box, here at the table…..

have you ever discovered — in the nick of time — that some treasure of yours was nearly lost? and if so, how did you save it?

telling time

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listen in: tick tock chime 

in this old house, bed linens are worn thin. old quilts bare their threads. spoons stir porridge for decades. chairs are passed from generation to generation. in the right slant of light, you can make out particular dents in the old kitchen table, where long ago, my third-grade self, or one of my brothers, pressed pencil to homework to maple slab, and the addition in columns, the ill-formed alphabet letters of some week’s spelling words, still stand. even the potato masher in this old house bears the weight of half a century — at least.

new things aren’t often acquired here. but we made room last week for an old, old clock. a new-to-us old clock. a beehive clock, it’s called. with westminster chimes. and from the very first gong, it’s felt as if it’s ever been here. right away, it lulled me. made me feel even more at home.

it chimes every quarter hour, the progression of chimes compounding with every passing slice of the hour, for a total of 96 chimes in a day. and when the minute hand points heavenward, points due north, it gongs the big ben gong, one for each accumulated hour, of course.

it sounds to me like honey dripping across a slice of poundcake. or molasses poured onto flapjacks, if sound came with pictures. velvety, smooth, utterly unruffled and unruffling. it’s the very definition of soothing. it might sound, in its quieter intervals, the ones where it’s merely ticking and tocking, like water dripping. because i’ve been reading all about clocks, i understand why i hear the water-drop sounds. in ancient times, back near the beginning of measured time, the greeks devised a water clock, realizing that the drips fell at a particular rate per hour, and thus could be harnessed for time-telling purposes.

i tried to find out if there was some physiologic connection between the sound of time ticking and the workings of the human body, the heart perhaps. i’ve not yet found my answer, but i have a hunch: the sound of a ticking clock is the closest we’ll come to the in utero sounds, when our newly-formed ear was pressed against the wall of our mama’s womb, and the whooshing and swooshing of her heart was the first thing we heard, was the round-the-clock soundtrack of our very beginning.

i know that in nature there’s a particular universal set of shapes and designs and symmetries and proportions (consider the snowflake or the rose petal, the starfish or even the tiger’s striped face), and that the patterns repeat and repeat throughout creation. mathematicians and artists alike have spent their lives obsessed with these ineffable truths. they’ve put names to them, names like divine proportion or the miraculous spiral.

i like to imagine God dipping into God’s paint kit to pull from that oft-used palette, applying God’s favorites here, there, and everywhere. do you think it’s true too of the patterns of sound? clock ticking = water dripping = human heart, no matter how you rearrange it. do you think God had a shortlist of sounds, of ones reserved for the soothingest jobs?

affection for clocks is not new in this old house. in one of those curious entwinings of the histories we’ve woven together in this adventure called “our married life,” the tall bespectacled fellow and i both grew up with grandparents whose walls were covered in clocks, and whose hours erupted in cacophonous gongs and chimes and whistles and tweets (in the cases, of course, of the cuckoo clocks). sleeping at grandma’s, for both of us, meant falling asleep and awaking to clang upon clang upon cuckoo.

long ago, in our very first house, we hung on our wall a simple kitchen clock, one with gingerbread carvings and etchings in paint the color of gold. it had belonged to the tall one’s grandfather, and i’ve long considered it the heart sound of this old house. i didn’t need another one.

but the man i married started thinking about clocks a few years ago, when i was writing a book called “slowing time,” and he thought a clock was the perfect way to mark the birth of that dream. we’d considered a true grandfather clock, one that stood against the wall like a wood-limbed soldier. every once in a while we’d amble through a clock shop, one where the clocks came with history, and sometimes with pedigree.

then we traveled to london, and beelined our way to big ben, the best clock that ever there was, you might argue (and i might). we stood beneath that tower of chiming and gonging, feeling the sidewalk beneath us quiver with the vibration of the bells. we listened and listened, made sure we were there for high noon and midnight, to get the full bravura.

a year passed, and for me, another decade ended, a new one began. we went back to the clock shop, and this time, we both stopped in front of the clock that sounded just like big ben.

my beloved blair bought it, the clock man gave it a cleaning, and a few days later i drove back to carefully carefully carry it home.

it’s home now. it chimes now. we call it little ben. every time i hear its chimes, i melt all over again. i can’t seem to help it.

my sweet blair, a very wise soul in the deepest and surest of ways, he stood back the other evening, the glow of the lamps falling across his face, and whispered quietly, “it’s a celebration of time.”

and it is. every minute noted, every quarter hour chimed. every hour a loud and resonant reminder: the time is now, savor it.

bless you, and thank you, sweet blair. and little ben, too.

if you click the link just below the clock (way above), you can hear a bit of the ticking and half-hour chiming (i hope!). and be sure to note that i’ve linked to big ben announcing high noon in the paragraph near the bottom, the one about traveling to london. both are your clock songs for the day. 

a few things i learned about westminster chimes: they first rang out from the church of st. mary the great, in cambridge, england. the year was 1793. the chimes are comprised of four permutations of four pitches, all in the key of E major. three crotchets (or quarter notes) are followed by a minim (half note). and they’re believed to be a set of variations on the four notes that make up the fifth and sixth measures of “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from handel’s messiah. they were first heard in america in 1875, ringing out from the steeple of trinity episcopal church in williamsport, pennsylvania. and, the first two notes are the very ones heard to this day on every NYC subway train, warning that doors are about to close. the whole shebang is played at yankee stadium whenever the home team scores. and if there’s a 3-point shot that glides through the basket on the LA laker’s home court, you’ll hear it there too. 

do you, too, love the tick and the tock of a clock? do you have a clock story to tell? what are the sounds that most soothe you, or make you feel as if God is whispering in your ear?

and into my kitchen, they all congregated

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i’d ordered the brisket, five pounds of first-cut beast, as instructed. i was due to dash out the door to the butcher’s at the agreed-upon hour, but first i needed to quick-read my passover checklist. so i pulled my family cookery book off the shelf, the one where, over the years, i’ve tucked snippets and pages and odd scribbled notes. it’s my holding yard for guideposts to brisket and kugel and those chopped balls of fish called gefilte — decades and centuries of recipes, really, passed one generation to the next.

in my case, it’s the fat stash of invitations into an ancient tradition that was not mine, but now is. in my case, it’s my compendium of adopted jewish mothers and grandmothers and aunties and surrogate whisperers over my shoulder, all committed to paper and ink, and clicked into a three-ring binder.

and that’s when the first kitchen companion — unseen but certainly sensed — came into the room. before i got to the tab marked “jewish holidays,” i’d flipped open a page, and there was a name staring out at me, the name of my irish friend who’d just died, tagged in crisp typed letters at the bottom of her blueberry cake, one she must have passed along because once i’d oohed and ahh-ed. i paused for a moment, picturing her, picturing her blueberries, picturing her rare nod to domesticity (though she always loved a great meal). and then i turned another page; i found another now-departed instructor of kitchen arts. i scanned over the words, her careful instruction, her side whispers and peculiar idiosyncrasies, always tucked off to the margin in parenthetical insistence. (“Try not to burn it.” “yes, tablespoons,” “don’t food process, or you will have mush,” “it’s OK if it seeps over the rest…”)

i came to the brisket, the one my boys practically lick off the plate. i followed my scribbles for haroset, the mortar of apples and walnuts and cinnamon and honey, with a splash of manishewitz kosher concord wine. i read through kugel, one i’d not made before, but one my boys have counted on, ever since their very first passover at the long, long table of tribune folk, the one that for them will forever be synonymous with the exodus from egypt. with every page i turned, i drew in another to my sacred kitchen circle: harlene ellin’s mama, queen of the brisket; ina, whose claim to fame (besides her long-standing, much-loved chicago breakfast eatery) is the seltzer she adds to her matzoh balls to make them “floaters” of cloud-like proportion; andrea, who wandered by the other day, and did not scoot off before penning an all-new kugel and a middle-eastern charoset, now added to my collection.

and then, assured of my passover-cooking itinerary, i reached on the shelf for the mini-sized chopper of apples i’d employ for making old-fashioned haroset. as i lifted the sharp blade and bowl from the box, out toppled a post-it, now nearly 23 years old. it was from the grandma of my heart, my grandmother-in-law whom i loved fromIMG_7512 the get-go. just weeks after our firstborn was born, she’d packed up the mini-chopper and sent it from west palm beach to our little house in chicago. she tucked in a note, in her signature scribble: “dear children,” she began, declaring straight off that she counted me one of her own. “perhaps you will be able to grind veg. for willie when he is ready for them.” and suddenly grandma syl (“the teaneck tornado,” they called all four-foot-nine of her) was there in the kitchen beside me, pressing against my shoulder blade, her tousled silvery head barely reaching the top of my arm. wasn’t long till i was awash in the tears that come when remembering hurtles you back in time, erases the years, fills your head and your heart with unmistakeable presence. i could hear the squeak of her voice. i could feel, in an instant, as if it was the summer of 1993 all over again, the weight of the lump in my arms, the newborn lump who’d precipitated the need, apparently, for a rapid-fire way to make baby puree. (and, as i stood there blinking away my tears, i re-sealed my vow never to toss out a love note or a scrap that might come tumbling from the pages of a book, or the contents of a gift box, swirling you back in time every time, rekindling the thump of the heart that won’t ever fade.)

and so it went, hour upon hour yesterday. as i chopped and stirred and cranked the oven. by day’s end, when the table was set with dishes passed from one china cabinet to the next, when i’d pulled the haggadahs from the shelf, found the seating chart from last year, with yet another name no longer among us, i’d filled my house with those i’ve loved and lost.

it must be the sorrow that’s made me more porous this year. that, according to celtic tradition, has made for the thinning between heaven and earth, that’s pushed my soul soft up against the sacred openings, where angels seep in.

and why not fill my jewish holiday kitchen, my passover kitchen, with page after page of those who’ve shown me the way? those who took my unfamiliar irish-catholic hand, and led me into the back lanes and secret passageways of this jewish-catholic marriage? why not invite them all into my kitchen for the day, and set a place at the table — at my heart — for each and every one of them?

so tonight, when i bow my head and strike the match to light the blessed shabbat and pesach candles, everyone else will count a mere five at the table. i, though, will feel the embrace of a whole company of cookstove companions and patron saints of jewish cookery. and i will offer up a litany of prayer for each and every one of them. each and every one of the ones who’ve shown me the shortcuts to heaven, where too many now reside.

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brisket, before its overnight nap in the fridge

do you too find cookery books, the homespun kind, fill your kitchen with those you’ve loved, and those who’ve shown you particular ways? 

p.s. i know i promised field notes from my poetry get-away, and those will come — next week, perhaps. the bottom line was that paying attention is at the heart of poetry and prayer, and we’re all the richer for keeping a keen eye to the mystery and miracle that abounds.

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haroset: apples, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, with a splash of manishewitz

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roasted shank bone, roasted egg for the seder plate

history: lost and found

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four of us, before there were five of us. 

i’ve been pulled into the mists and folds of history, family history, tumbling across generations and centuries, drawn back to beginnings. and what’s pummeling me more than anything is the sense of stories lost. i sift through the barest scraps of biography: birth, death, name (or, too often, too confusingly, derivation of name, not the name that will lead me to slips of paper that nail down history, as much as history can be relied upon, can be trusted to those who put ink to government forms).

it began with a wisp of a note from my brother, a short bit of digging about our kentucky roots. didn’t take long to hop to ireland, that homeland that stirs me in ancient, primal ways. my attention — despite a deadline that pounds at me by the hour — was captured. i couldn’t resist. and in the wonders of the world we live in, a few clicks away i found birth dates and days of someones’ last breaths. any time i stumbled on a document, found corroboration for hint, for approximation of fact or of timeline, i heard a faint sigh. one more story with beginning or end. soon, but not yet, i will begin to sift through those dates, search for overlappings, for patterns, for sense. connect the dots, literally. fill in what i can of the story.

i finally determined that i’m only three generations away from ireland, at least on one strand of my story. i learned, too, because i found a letter along the way, that my irish great grandpa, teddy (though officially timothy, or thaddeus, depending on the document), spoke with a brogue so thick, so old-country, he was hard to understand for those who bumped into him on the streets of paris, kentucky, where my papa was born.

on my mama’s side, i tumbled into some stroke of genealogical good fortune when my tapping around bumped into someone else’s hours and hours of archival digging, and suddenly i was looking at 16 generations — dating all the way back to 1470 in the year of our Lord, dear Lord. i was charmed, on this side of familiar affairs, to discover that besides the name barbara (which i’d always been told had a long family history), the other name spotted with alarming frequency was none other than — hold your chairs, here — Apollonia. my favorite: one Apollonia Winter, born in 1659. she must be my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmama. i admit to being charmed to have an apollonia for a grandma. (although my serial and lifelong protests of my own barbed name might now be put to permanent rest, for what if they’d reached in the archival closet and pulled out the feminine nod to Apollo, variously regarded as god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, and poetry.)

by the end of the day’s digging and clicking i had a spread sheet that filled a few screens, and yet, i knew so little. while somehow i found comfort, embraced in the arms of time spread across decades, century, millennia, i was washed in a profound sense of loss — of stories lost. of moments of heroism, or plain old hearts cracked. i wondered what kept apollonia awake at night. i wondered who caught her fancy. did she know what it was to bury a child? and what of all the men i noticed, especially on the irish side, who’d buried a wife, and then started all over again (a predilection that sprang forth my very own papa). and, because it’s february, and because long ago now, my own papa died on the 10th of this month, i find myself achingly missing him all over again. only slighted comforted typing the name and the line of his mama, my dear anna mae shannon, born 1896, died february, 1954.

there was a yin to this yang, though, and it unfolded the other night, well past bedtime for my freshman in high school, the formerly named “little one” whose adventures have so filled these pull up a chair pages. he sat down for some reason, and pulled up a chair, and for a good hour or so i heard him giggling and sighing as he clicked from story to story. he was reading the bits of history i’ve left behind, the scraps i’ve put here on the table. for him. for his brother.

all along i’ve said the number one reason i write these tales from the front is so that my boys will have a record. a record of love, more than anything. i want them to be able to pore over the grains of their growing up years. i want them — and, goodness, maybe even their children’s children — to know the stories. to be able to grasp a detail or two, so it’s not lost. so that the whole of one someone’s life — and more importantly her love, her heart — isn’t washed away with my very last breath.

i’d give anything to gather up the scraps of story from long long ago.

i think of my father’s words to me, shortly before he died, one of the very last times i rested my head on his chest. we were standing in front of the refrigerator in the house where i grew up. he’d just read a love letter i’d written to him, to each one in my family. he said simply, strikingly at the time: “you have a real sense of history.” he could see what i didn’t yet know. and then he was gone from my everyday.

and that sense of history, one filled with so many blanks, it haunts me, it pulls me. it propels me to gather up stories. before they’re lost to all time.

has anyone gathered the stories at your house?

power of five. five.

and here is the fifth of our five, my forever dream come true.

any hour now

my papa and me, taking a walk.

love letters lost

love letters lost hands

sifting through the cyber-ashes, gathering up a flake or two of text, pausing long enough to read, to remember, to let the tears fill and fall. feeling the full-throttle pang of if-that’s-what’s-left-how-very-much-was-lost?

i’ve found the snippet dated april 10, 2009, on the eve of a baby’s birth, in which i wrote to the expectant mama and papa: “i am certain that we have entered into holy time….” a beautiful baby girl was born deep in the middle-night four days later. the email marked the beginning of the hardening rhythms of that labor and delivery.

i’ve been scribbling life’s every twist and turn, long as i can remember. i mark time with typed-out missives. short or long or in-between, doesn’t matter. all that matters is that, for me, it’s putting life to paper, etching time with written record.

i’ve found the one i sent hours after delivering our firstborn to his leafy college, in which i wrote: “poor teddy sobbed silently, melted in tears.” august 29, 2011. i’d sent that one off to my mama, who wanted to know how the parting went.

and there’s the one, three months later, when that firstborn came home for the very first time, and at the dawn of that first morning while he slept, back in the bed above where i was typing, i wrote to my brother: “i suddenly feel whole for the first time in three months….”

i even found the email, carefully tucked away in my meticulously organized treasury of emails — a virtual apothecary chest of drawers within drawers, each one labeled and stuffed with cyber-snippets — from november 4, 2008, when one newly-elected barack obama sent out a note letting me (and a few million other cyber-pals) know that we’d just made history and, by the way, he was heading over soon to grant park, a moment in history — a moment in my email trove — that won’t soon be forgotten.

i have been sifting through all week, discovering what was lost and what was saved. i find notes from the mother of a dying child who wrote, “as they say at NASA, failure is not an option.” another to a friend whose husband had just died, and who i tried to fill with comfort in the best way i know — words dispatched from the pulsing place deep inside my heart. yet another to a friend whose unborn baby girl had just died. and another, a note from the intensive care unit where our firstborn lay with a fractured neck bone. and one my little one (nine at the time) wrote to his uncle, “i will love max all my life,” after his uncle’s beloved golden retriever up and died.

it’s birth and death, and all the touch points in between. it’s loss and hearts filled up. it’s history and how i breathe.

i write because words for me are the vessels in which i pour my unharness-able heart. i pay acute attention to nuance and particulars. i make up words to try to stretch the periphery of that place that holds so much. i want the people in my world to know they’re not alone, they’re loved, their murky shadow is pierced by shard of light. there is a hand to squeeze in the darkness, and i offer it in words.

i render communion in banged-out letters on a keyboard.

and when your hard drive fails, and the trusted back-up drive does too, when you fall in the unheard-of 0.5 percent, you lose crucial threads, you lose what matters, you ache and you weep, the tears spilling to the keyboard.

and so it’s been all week, as i sift and sort and flag bits and snippets that piece the long-winding narrative — the story of a love that’s flowed without end for all the years i’ve been typing.

among the many chapters lost: the one of a boy with a broken neck and his triumphant bar mitzvah three weeks later; the story of that boy wending his way through high school and — finally, achingly (for his mother anyway) — heading off to college. i’ve lost all the emails that i sent, at every turn in those early far-from-home days that turned to weeks and months of learning how to be a long-distance mama. i’ve lost the emails i sent to beloved teachers, kindergarten through college. and, to pinpoint yet another now-missing chapter, the emails bandied back and forth between my sweet life mate and moi, as we decided whether to up and leave our house, our life, our humdrum everyday, to move for one short year to cambridge, mass., to go back to college, to dwell beyond our comfort zone.

in the life story of a family, much unfolds over the course of eight years. back when i first started typing on this particular apparatus, one boy had just turned 13, the other was barely five. i was working at a newspaper, longing to work from home. george bush was president. my brother’s first wife had just died. neither my beloved niece nor nephew had yet been imagined. my mother hadn’t been told that she had a tumor growing in her belly.

i recorded it all in the little blasts i type and send nearly every single morning, and through the whole day long.

the nice and very smart geniuses who live in apple-land, they did the best they could. for days and days and hours without end (or so it seemed when our phone calls ticked into sixth straight hour, three days in a row). but the sent emails could not be saved. nor the photo albums, all carefully edited and curated. i got back raw images, some 20,000, and i will sift and sort and delete the blurry ones, as i’d done before, in all those hours now lost. the books i’d made from those images — pictures and text, page after page — all gone.

and so, on this day of hearts and cut-out valentines, when words are scribbled in silly rhymes and riddles, i am left to consider love letters lost. and to hope and pray that the echo of what they meant, and what they tried to hold up to the light, i am left hoping that it lives on where it was birthed — deep inside me, deep inside the soul of a girl who’s been holding tight a pencil all her life, trying again and again to get it on paper, to get it right, this immeasurable, unfathomable force of life, of love, of understanding.

the one that sometimes is spelled out in quiet little emails. ones that arrive with nothing but the ping of a flat black box telling you something from the heart has just landed. please read, and know that you are loved.

forgive me for dwelling one more week on this nasty mess of a cyber-crash. it’s been just awful, the slow dawning realization of chunk after chunk that’s simply gone, vanished, kaput, kerpluey. like so many other losses in life, we console ourselves with the deep down truth that in the end the only thing that can’t be stolen, can’t be crushed, or lost, is the imperceptible and vast catalog of memory, of what’s held in our hearts and souls and minds. 

what love letters do you hold closest to your heart?

all at once

before i was barely awake, before i’d lifted that first cup of wake-up to my thirsty lips, i was reaching for the red-polka-dot binder that has long been my guide through days like today.

after 20 years — that’s 20 passovers and 20 high holidays, 20 purims and 20 briskets with latkes aplenty — i’ve stuffed so many road guides into one fat pocket, that all i need do is flip to the itty-bitty tag marked “jewish holidays” and a whole chorus of voices rises up, whispers, cajoles, reminds, takes the pan from my hand and shows me the right way, her way, of course.

oh, there’s grandma syl in there, and audrey, my adopted jewish mother. there’s jan’s mom with her working-girl’s-guide-to-making-a-seder. and harlene’s mom with her now famous brisket. why, the whole los angeles times test kitchen is stuffed in that slip, weighing in with their rendition of noodle kugel, though not the one i’ll use today.

i’ve got the rabbi’s wife’s gefilte fish, step-by-step on a yellow legal pad, back from the day i spent at her side in her kitchen, sloshing and dunking those fish balls just the way she instructed. and, scribbled on a paper napkin not too many pages later, i’ve got the matzo balls that ina pinkney, one of chicago’s great jewish mamas, insisted, in her much-above-the-din stage whisper, would keep my hubby happy forever. so far, so good.

they are my chorus, my girls, my back-up squad, there for me every time i, irish catholic as the day is long, tiptoe into the kosher kitchen to make like a bubbe.

and today, the climb is a steep one. i’ve got to crank out a kosher-for-passover kugel for 10, one that calls for farfel, 6 cups, doused and swimming in 6 cups hot water. mind you, i’ve never touched a box of farfel, let alone taken it swimming.

but i’ve got to get it all done, signed, sealed, awaiting delivery, by noon.

because today is an all-at-once day of supreme proportion.

in addition to being the first night of passover, it is the somberest day in my book: it’s good friday, and i am biologically wired for silence from noon to three, when the sky will go dark, will rumble, when the whole world — just watch, i always tell my boys — will weep for the long-ago death of jesus there on the cross.

it’s a full plate today, yes indeed, and right through the weekend, as the holiest of days unfold flat atop the retelling of the exodus, the action-filled story of moses leading his people — our people — out of egypt, across the red sea and on into the promised land.

it’s a story whose retelling for more years than i’ve been married has pulled me to the tables of crowds now synonymous with the seder. i’ll be back at the seat at the tables where i’ve sat single, and newly engaged, where i was a new bride, then a pregnant one, and, for all the years after, the mother of one boy then two who were growing up as i now am: weaving their jewish and catholic stories into one unbreakable braid.

but, far back as i can remember, the first night of passover hasn’t fallen on what we call good friday, a name that always prompts my boys to ask, “why is it good if jesus died?”

good question; one, like so many, that’s hard to answer. but when you raise your children jewish and catholic you get used to that; there are many good questions hard to answer, so you get used to thinking aloud.

fact is, i’ll be scrambling all morning, groping my way through this roadmap of a recipe for johanna’s farfel-soaked noodle kugel. it’s a recipe that melts me into a puddle of kosher-for-passover butter because, without even closing my eyes, i can see my little one, his arms still chubby in that baby-fat way, reaching across the table, grabbing for the spoon, because it was perhaps the first exotic thing he ever loved. and, oh, he loved it. and after so many years of watching him love it, spoon it high onto his plate, and gulp it down, i finally managed to get the recipe from johanna. and today i tiptoe into the land of farfel.

it’ll be out of the oven, if all goes as planned, by the time the clock strikes 12.

that’s when i’ll be up in my window seat, with all my holy books spread around me.

already i am achingly missing my usual companion in that sun-soaked window nook: for all of his high-school years, my firstborn joined me, though it never took long for him to slide down under a blanket and doze, while i drank in the stories, retracing the stations of the cross, jesus’ long cruel walk to calvary.

but we were together, he and i in silence, and even though my open wounds of missing him have healed over plenty, even though i can get through a week without hearing even a syllable of his voice, today, in the silence, i will miss him.

i keep saying  — and it’s true — grief is like that. for long unbroken spells of time, you’re just fine, used to someone you love no longer being around, but then, out of the blue — a sound, a smell, a thought — it hits you like an anvil over the head — or is it the heart? — and there you are oozing in the wide-open emptiness that just might swallow you whole.

might be fitting, come to think of it, that on this day of remembering — remembering the exodus, remembering jesus’ last hours, and most of all his last gasp of holy forgiveness — “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” — i should spend a solid few hours aching for my faraway firstborn son, as i absorb once again the afternoon of shadows.

and then, well before sundown, i will slide my farfel-soaked kugel off the counter, and carry it back to the passover table whose story i now know by heart.

it’s the way i’ve come to know it on days like this, all-at-once days, guided as ever, by my chorus of cooks stashed there in the polka-dot binder.

here’s all i managed to scribble, on a pink sheet of paper, marked “Johanna’s Kugel”:

6 cups farfel

6 cups water, soak up &…[i am giving you these notes precisely as i scribbled them, thus you can see the holes in my roadmap]

6 eggs — beat 1st, then add

2/3 c. sugar

2/3 cup brown sugar

3-1/2 t. cinnamon

1-1/2 t. salt

9 Tbsp oil

6 apples

lemon juice

mix. bake 350 degrees. 35-40 minutes.

and now, you too, can swim in the land of waterlogged farfel

how will you spend these holy days? 

coming home

as much as i loved tiptoeing down to the porch that wrapped around the grand old hotel, as much as i loved creaking in those old wicker rocking chairs, my palms wrapped round the mugs of first-of-the-morning coffee, the just-blooming, just-exploding viburnum and magnolia doing a perfumed waltz up my nose, i am home now, and already i’m thinking there is no place that soothes me quite like coming back in the door of the place that knows me, the place that i know, that i love, that keeps time right with my heart.

we took ourselves a little road trip this week. not too far. not too long. down to nooks and crannies of the southern midwest, to hilly southern indiana, near where it brushes up against kentucky, and on over to kentucky, too. to where my roots begin.

on a bit of a whim, we rode out to the itty-bitty country town of paris. yes, as in kentucky, 14 miles north and east of lexington. out to where my papa was a boy, out to the horse farms he knew like family, even though he lived in town, before they up and moved to the big city, to get my papa to schools his mama must have decided were a better fit for a boy with a school mind like his.

the closer we got to paris, the more i missed my papa, missed him like i’d just left him yesterday but couldn’t ever get him back. i missed him so much my heart started to hurt as we rode along the road they call the paris pike, where century-old stone fences line the farms that roll, acre upon acre, blue-grass mile after blue-grass mile.

i wasn’t quite sure how to get to the farm that we claim as our own, the one whose name you might find on the can of baking powder there at the back of your pantry. calumet is the one. calumet farm. and my papa grew up there; his big brother, the one he loved who died in the war, he ran the place, and all these years later, when i sit down to watch the derby, the kentucky derby of course, i hear someone whisper “calumet,” or i see the crimson-and-white silks the calumet jockey always wears, and my heart skips a beat.

“our farm,” i think, as if a connection from back in the 1930s and ’40s, holds one drop of weight anymore. and sure enough, when we got there, the crimson iron gate was closed, all but locked. and the fellow who came to the phone let me know i wasn’t someone for whom they’d swing it open. place was closed for the day, he said loud and clear, made sure i heard it all the way at the end of the very long drive, even though we were talking over the dial-up intercom planted there by the gatehouse, and i heard every word all right. so i stood there on the outside of the locked, lacy ironwork, feeling quite wholly my place in its history: shut out. an insignificant afterthought. nothing more than a nuisance, there where they won’t let you in.

but before that, when i’d stopped in the offices of the town newspaper, and told the nice ladies that my papa grew up there, and i was looking for calumet farm, well, they couldn’t have been kinder. they all but pulled out the kentucky pie, and a plate and a fork. all but poured me a cup of afternoon coffee. instead, they asked me my papa’s name. then they started to tell me all about his family, where they lived, where they went to church. i tell you, no one with his last name has lived there for a long long time. but in little towns like paris, kentucky, they remember. make you feel just like family, there in the newspaper office on main.

but not at the gates of the farm now owned by someone altogether new. someone from far, far away, i’ve been told.

for four days and four nights, i slept in beds that don’t know my particular lumps. drank coffee that wasn’t brewed in my pot. i walked and looked and listened, and found myself quite content, out discovering a part of the middle of america i hadn’t seen in a long long time, and other parts i’d never seen before.

i do love mucking about, discovering, finding the familiar far far away.

but, once again, as always, i discovered just a short while ago that the familiar that i love best, the familiar that soothes me through and through, is the familiar that i know by heart: the particular tick and tock of all our old clocks, the pit-a-pat of the old cat’s paws as he ambled down the steps once he heard us there in the kitchen.

why, i love tossing old car-bumped apples back in the bin, finding everything there in the fridge where i left it, only a bit more wrinkled and the milk gone sour. i even found myself humming as i threw the first load of road-trip clothes into the wash, the machine whose groans and burps i know inside and out.

coming home will always be the closest i come to purring, pure and simple. give me the floorboards that creak just where i know they will. give me the garden whose every bulb i tucked in that holy sacred earth.

i’ll miss those front-porch rocking chairs, come morning. but the coffee will be just the way i like it, with two or three shakes of cinnamon, there on top of the mound before i close the lid and wait.

back home in my kitchen, humming.

what do you love best about coming home? or are you a travelin’ soul? 

and just in case you are interested, that lovely porch and those rocking chairs can be found at the west baden springs hotel, in west baden, indiana, just this side of the hoosier national forest, not far from brown county, a place worth a road trip, indeed.

one last bit of homecoming joy: my mama, closest thing i know to a saint plenty of days, she came by to stock the fridge and leave two fat bouquets of viburnums on the countertop, right beside the kitchen sink, so when we walked in from the road trip, first thing i inhaled was the viburnum waltz, same as the one that made me swoon back on the west baden’s wrap-around porch. oh, i wish there was a smell button here, so i could waft it right by your nose. you’ll just have to close your eyes now, and pretend. try this: imagine what heaven would smell like, if it bloomed on a bush.

any hour now…

it is, like so many of the lines we draw inside our lives, invisible, undetected from the outside. and yet, for years now, it has loomed, larger and larger. defined me, in many ways.

especially in these last two weeks, i’ve noticed.

if there is a lull in the whirl around me, there it creeps. the voice that whispers, “this is how it looked for him, the parting frames. these were his final days.”

and, now, it’s down to hours.

my papa is the one whose eyes i see the world through right now. especially as i look upon the ones i love so dearly. the ones whose face i study. whose voice, whose laugh, whose footsteps i could pick out of a crowd of hundreds of thousands. the ones whose rhythms, rise and fall, thrum within me.

my little one especially. the one who holds my hand still, as we walk to camp most mornings. the one who, as i tuck him into bed, lets it all spill out in whispers, stored up, saved for that blessed hour at the edge of day and night when the stirrings simmer over. he is young enough, baby enough, to still climb into my lap, to still reach out while getting water from the fridge, and wrap me in a squeeze, unannounced.

i’ve done the math. done it over and over, for years and years. and now it’s come.

my papa died when he was 52 and six months and eight days.

that’s how old i’ll be tomorrow.

and as the hour comes, so too does the drumbeat in my heart. i am, in some ways, coaxing it over the line. don’t give out now, i tell it. don’t take me now.

and as i say those words, i imagine he did too. never would have thought his time was up. shouldn’t have been, damn that it was.

it is the oddest slipping of my self into his self. as if the two of us have, for these shadowed days, blurred, become the oddest form of one. i cannot not see the world through the lens of what must have been his. cannot not count the days, the hours.

i’d think it odd–might be too shy to mention it–if i’d not found out that i am hardly alone.

but months ago, i wrote about how it is to become the age your parent was when he or she died. and by the hundreds, i got letters. i am not the first, nor the last, certainly not the only one who’s done the final calculation. who knows, to the hour, when the line is crossed.

when, God willing, my life’s hours extend beyond the hours that were his.

and so there is a holiness like no other draped across these days. today especially, perhaps. the day ticking toward the last.

if you were told you’d one day left to live, how would you live it?

a cocktail party question, perhaps.

except when it’s not.

and i’d think this might be the closest i could come to taking a pass at that question in real time.

and so, this holy blessed day, i am entering into the hours as if a bride. i am paying supreme attention.

i’ve been in the garden, squished my toes in mud, as the hose rained down. as my delphinium and roses drank their morning’s rejuvenation.

i watched the sun play peek-a-boo with clouds.

i cuddled with the cat.

i let my little one sleep in. no camp today.

today, he and i are playing, the way it should always be. except most days it can’t be. we don’t let it be. most days we let life get in the way of living.

we are holding hands today. walking down the street to a place where the screen door slaps, and the kitchen cloud of frying bacon and coffee perked and pancakes sizzling on the grill wafts out onto the sidewalk.

we aren’t walking by today. we are asking for a table for two, please. three, if his big brother will join us. will make a holy celebration of this day.

they’ll not know why it is their mama seems full to bursting all day long. they’ll not hear the unspooling dialogue inside, the vespers of deep thanksgiving, the holy pleas and promises.

they’ll not know how very merged is the consciousness of their mama and their grandpa geno, as she and he criss-cross the holy line of what was his, and what is hers. and she holds up his final hours, once again, in a sacramental lifting, one last time, of a holiness that for so long has defined her.

her papa’s life cut short. too short. and a long-held prayer that she’d do right by whatever hours came to her.
dear God, be with us all. this most holy day, and every other.

an odd sort of meandering today, perhaps. more like the whispering of my soul. in white-on-black. like trying to catch a cut-glass rainbow, splattered on the wall. trying to wrap in words this inescapable line in the landscape of my soul. it’s an odd, sad mix of fear and hope, of chest-expanding promise and crushing loss. i’ve no choice, really, but to go on a prayer, and plan on being here tomorrow. not just for me, but, especially, for that little one i so love, who still so deeply needs me. as did my brothers need their papa, as did my mother. as did i.
how would you spend your hours if you had some inkling they might be among your last?

top drawer

i had no idea it was there. waiting for me, maybe. wondering when in the world i’d discover it, lying there in the shadow of the drawer i’d not opened in a very long time.

oh, my mama had urged me up there. not to slide open the drawer, but to look at the boxes at the back of the closet. boxes i’d tucked there long long ago. baby clothes, all of the boxes, doll-sized mittens and onesies and little gap overalls. somethings i’d sifted through, tucked off to the side, hoping, waiting. maybe someday there’d be a reason, a brother with reason to lug home the boxes. maybe a new baby would come, would finally come.

and so, this past long slow weekend, puttering about my mama’s old house, the house i grew up in, i somehow found myself pulled back to my room. maybe at first it was that ol’ twinge of guilt, oh, geez, those boxes, might as well get to the boxes, see if it’s time yet to part with those wee tiny treasures.

but then, for no reason, i swear, just an urge, a wisp of a whisper calling me maybe, i slid open the very top drawer.
and there, for the very first time, i saw a whole stash of papers, yellowed a bit, worn at the edges, stacked, one after another.

i started to read. my heart quickened, then pounded. suddenly, certainly, i knew i had found lost pieces of a puzzle i’d put off to the side.

these were essentials. turning points, each of them, in the life of my father. only i’d not ever seen them, not known, really, they existed. it was as if history, over the years, had done all the work there in the dark while i wasn’t looking.

it was sifted, condensed, it told whole threads of the story. threads in my mind, over time, over decades, that had started to blur.

there is that fine line in every unfurling of a family’s story, where truth drops off and myth takes over. fills in the lapses, bridges the gaps. i’d long ago lost track of which was which, and figured some chunks of the story had slipped into the warp of what happens when the sharp pierce of too-early death loses its sting, and in its place, story is laid, etched in the sands of family telling.

you simply stop looking for truth. you take the story as it’s handed to you. there is a balm in believing. you like a dash of amplification–glorified truth, perhaps–tossed in your old family tale.

yes, yes, your grandmother was the first woman in the state of kentucky to graduate college. yes, you like that. like the ring of that tale. yes, yes, your papa turned down harvard law school. had work to be done, and children to raise.

what woulda been, coulda been, doesn’t much matter. if, in telling the story, you can cling to the posts of what might or might not inflate a key player, provide something more to hold onto, there in the dark and the murk of a life’s fading twilight.

and so, after all those years of not really knowing any more, of occasionally feeling the itch of is-that-quite-true-or-is-it-a-bit-of-a-fib, i’d come to not count quite so much on a firm underpinning of fact. it all blurred. simply became the story we told.

but deep down, i am–as my father told me his very last christmas–a girl with a deep sense of history. i like my stories to line up, the facts to fall into place, because they belong there.

i am, after years of writing in medical charts, and even more years of writing everyday history in the pages of news, best suited–most settled–when the timbers of my story are nailed down in truth.

and so, there in my hands, my hands that were feeling the rush of discovery, of having stumbled on something that told the crux of the story, i moved from standing there, quivering, to dropping and curling my legs on the quilt of the bed that so many nights had shipped me to dreams.

and there it was, on harvard business school letterhead. a note, penned in the summer of 1953, acknowledging that my papa would not, for choices all his own, be attending in the fall. the place would be held, the admissions deputy wrote, should he ever change his mind.

i sat there beholding this new, never-known, or could-it-be-merely-forgotten, thread to my father’s story. i couldn’t help, later that night, poking around the keys on my keyboard, looking up the HBS class of 1955, to see what titans of industry mighta been classmates, mighta known and loved my gregarious–and dare i say, brilliant–father.

but before i got to that, i sat there, feeling the great granite slab of foundation settle into its lasting place.

what might have been myth, blurry, unfounded, was, with a slip of thick ivory paper, turned into fact. a crisp edge of history–my papa’s history, my sense of the man who’d always been my bright light and hero–was sealed. the fingers of time, run down the fold, neatly tucked it away, filed at last under t as in truth.

never again as i told of my father would i feel the ground quake under my story, as, behind the occasional passage, i wondered if i’d trespassed the truth, tiptoed to fiction.

and that wasn’t the only piece of the past that came to me, there on the bed, as the sun slipped away over the treetops that circle the pond out my long-ago window.

layer after layer, memo after letter after letter after old crinkled black-and-white photo. some of the layers typed on tissuey paper, the sort that looped like a sticking-out tongue through a key-sticking typewriter. some scrawled in the handprint of long-muffled heroes, the ones who loomed large in their day and their time and their page of the story.

by the end of an hour or so, my face wet with tears, with joy, with pride, with unbearable sorrow, with feeling again the scab of my heart ripped off and bleeding, i clutched the thick stack, the marvel of all of it.

there in the drawer at the top of the dresser, there where growing up i’d always tucked all my treasures, my things i wanted no one else to see–my eyeshadow snuck in the house, my love notes to boys i had crushes on, my rosary from first holy communion–there in the shadows of the one place where i’d kept what mattered the most, i discovered that history had done all the work.

lined up the truth, one after another. gave me the gift of a verifiable version of who was my papa–not only to me, but to all of the world.

more than ever that night, or maybe only more than in a very long time, i ached for the man whose story i’d only just more deeply discovered.

it all–and more–came flooding back to me. how i stood there in the kitchen, right after my papa’s funeral, and how my uncle, a wise man, spoke to me the words that for years were my solace: the depth of the pain equals the depth of the love.

so many nights, and again just the other one, i clung to the cramp in my heart, and named it the love of my papa.

only this night, as i remembered the feel of his arms wrapped around me, felt once again the breadth of his chest as i leaned in my head, i cried out for the papa i’d not wholly known for years and for years.

but who now–because, at last, i tugged open the very top drawer–i knew more than ever, and missed all the more gapingly.

have you discovered bits of the story of those who came, and maybe left, before you? have you stumbled upon history, only to be shaken by what you found? that you’d known it all wrong, or tripped upon the missing pieces to puzzles? have you wondered where the outlines of history blurred, and where myth had filled in for lapses in the telling of your family story? did you find solace in finally getting it straight?

pause. bow head. strike sullenly pose.

“did you see the obituaries?” my mother asked, first thing in the day. she was insistent. she was bothered. “peg died.”
peg bracken, she meant. peg, who might as well have been our next-door neighbor growing up. the one who passed virginia slims over the picket fence. poured a cocktail soon as the kiddies polished off the afterschool snack. i’m thinking her only use for her apron was to wipe her muddy shoes.
despite–or because of–the anarchy, my mother consulted her. followed her. stood off in the corner of the kitchen with her, often, snickering in a most unusual way.
she was apparently, my mother’s alter ego. she was, maybe, the trouble maker my mother wasn’t. she was, in 1960, when her book came out, her cookbook, her anti-cookbook, really, “the i hate to cook book,” a breath of something new in the simmering winds over by the range (for what had been the stove became the range somewhere there in the latter half of the last century).
her most famous recipe, perhaps, the one that’s been unfurled for all the obits, is the one for “skid road stroganoff.”
it goes like this:
“start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the water. brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. add the flour, salt, paprika and mushrooms, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”
you must love a woman who whisks “sullenly” into a recipe for stroganoff. even if the thought of stroganoff has you grabbing for the counter while you tamper down the urge to gag.
growing up in my house, that blue book with the funny drawings–the ones done, by the way, by the fellow who drew the daylights out of eloise at the plaza–stood mostly for one dish: a dish once named chicken rice roger. but in our house, now, it is mostly known as chicken rice grammy, for it is the perfect embodiment of all things cozy in a covered dish.
it a.) comes bubbling out of the oven, it’s b.) made with stuff dumped from a can, and c.) it is the surest cure for a bad day that i can think of.
of course, i’ve gussied it up over the years. but still i follow its cardinal rule. i mostly mess around with things that can be found in tin cans. i add artichoke hearts, which might be fresh or might be frozen, but from a can are just as good. i dump in broth, which again is happy from a can, is practically unheard of in my house in any made-from-scratch rendition.
it seems only fitting that we all bow our heads today. for i am guessing peg made her way, in one form or another, into the kitchens of our youth.
perhaps your mama made stayabed stew, sole survivor, or spinach surprise. certainly while james beard was informing half the country to saute, a fancy french verb that stood up the more american “to fry,” ms. bracken, a working mother who used her maiden name, mon Dieu, was subverting the other half.
fact is, she and betty friedan arose together. it’s just that bracken was a little quieter in her subversion. she was infiltrating suburban kitchens while friedan ransacked the bedrooms and beyond.
as the child of the i-hate-to-cook-book era i, of course, revolted. i grew up in a house where hamburger helper was tested for the folks at general mills. if it came, ready-mix, in a box, we were guinea pigs.
is it any wonder, then, that i stopped eating when i was 18? i decided frances moore lappe, she of small planet diet fame, she who wanted all the world to be fed fairly and without animal sacrifice, was more my speed. i worshipped at her altar, complemented protein all through college.
i am old enough, and far away enough, that now i see the humor in that food chain. my mother snickering in her corner, taking shortcuts willy nilly; me in mine, measuring grains, steaming broccoli.
i am old enough, now wise enough, i hope, that i can see the beauty too of a voice that whispered to my mother. told her to dump the long hours at the stove. get out, perhaps, play tennis.
for my mother who grew up with french nuns and a mother who made her wear white gloves, peg bracken was the safest radical she could invite into her kitchen.
if i drank something more than the wimpy white wine i sip each night, i might pour and lift a dry martini.
to peg, who made my mother giggle. to peg, who had her dumping cans all around the kitchen.
in case you’d like a taste o’ peg, here’s what we call chicken rice grammy
3/4 cup uncooked rice
1 cup mushrooms
grated onion
1 3/4 cup chicken broth
chicken pieces

brown chicken. dump on top of rice, mushroom, onion, broth. bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

(note the lack of specificity up above, no one advising organic broth, basmati rice. just get the job done, seems to be the underlying message. and get it done, it surely did. a more delicious comfort dish, i’m hard-pressed to find.)

did you grow up with peg? was your mama snickering in the corner, staring sullenly into the sink? i thought it might be fitting to strike up a write-like-peg contest. feel free to pen your own bracken-esque recipe below. (use words like sullen with abandon, please)….and i would like to cordially invite my very own mama to say, in her words, why she so loved peg bracken….
p.s. i might be late tomorrow, as i must be in court at 9. and i think, even with chicken rice grammy under my belt, my tummy might be churning. so perhaps i’ll play court reporter and fill you in after all the courtroom drama. egad.