Monday, July 22, 2013

What I Found under My Daughter's Bed

Yesterday, Robert and I paid a hauler to come and remove my 24-year-old daughter’s few remaining belongings from her room.

Well, actually, more than a few.

Robert and I moved in together about four months after my daughter was graduated from high school.  She had already gone off to college by the time I left the house and the community in which she had grown up.
She was really mad about it.

Really, really mad.

I know this because she told me years later, not because she was exceptionally unpleasant about the whole process as it was occurring.  In point of fact, she was an amazingly good sport, helping to pack up her room, bringing a bunch of new friends home during her first fall break, enjoying our Thanksgiving and holiday traditions with her customary spunk and spirit.  But I now know that she was masking her true feelings, keeping them private, out of my field of vision.

Still, she managed, despite her sadness and anger at me, to build a life here for her late-teenage self.

Here’s some of what I found on the floor under her bed, after the haulers took it away:

A shoe box she had decorated, filled with makeup brushes and bottles of dried-up nail polish;

A crumpled Obama poster (she went to Occidental, where the president went for two years before transferring to Columbia; she campaigned door-to-door for him in Las Vegas with college friends);

A binder full of sheet music from her high-school choir classes;

About four hundred mini Milky Way wrappers;

A small ceramic shoe—a leopard-skin pump—that I had given her when she was a little girl (I used to buy her different styles of these shoes once in a while, as a treat);

A book about origami;

A postcard from her friend Shanna;

Two fuzzy pink slippers that didn’t match.

In the end, I let the haulers take her bed and her dresser and boxes and boxes of clothes.  I kept her bookshelves , at her request.  And her photos.  And her books.  (I don’t give books away, on principle.)  And her stuffed animals, because it’s like I’m still four and they’re still real, and I can’t, I just can’t.

But here’s the weird thing.  The things I found under her bed—the things she seemed to care about least—were the things I found the most moving, the most evocative of her, my little girl who became the most friendly, bubbly, talented, funny teenager and is now a college graduate, living on her own, working hard, paying her own bills.

So I kept those things, too.  (Except for the Milky Way wrappers.  Those I managed to let go.)

Robert and I plan to make the room into a library, an extension of my office, which adjoins it.  But it will be empty for a little while.  And that is fine with me.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Houses I Used to Live in, Baths in the Sink, and New Skills

About six months ago, I was driving my mother around.  (She is 93 and has dementia, and she likes to take drives and look at pretty neighborhoods and trees.)  On a lark, I drove her to the street where I knew she and my father had rented a house when they first moved to the Bay Area.  It was the house in which I was born 56 years ago.

We drove up the street.  My mother looked out the window intently, oohing and aahing at the beautiful trees shading each house.  “Lordy!” she whispered repeatedly, followed by “Vey iz mir!,” which is Yiddish for “Holy crap!”  But she didn’t recognize any of the houses as being the one she and my father had lived in.

We reached the end of the street and turned around.  She oohed and aahed some more, but I could tell that nothing looked familiar.  She often has a blank look these days. It’s common in those with dementia.  “I don’t remember,” she whispered over and over.

Then, at the corner, as we were about to turn onto the main boulevard through town, she gasped.  I looked over at her.  The blankness was gone.  She was pointing.  “That’s it!” she cried.  “That’s the house!”

The house on the corner was a ranch house, updated to resemble the others on the street, but I could see a small area of painted-over brick that looked older.  And the gate to the back of the house had a heart-shaped cut-out in it that also looked to be from another era.  I pulled over to the curb.

“That’s it!” my mother marveled.  “I remember!  I remember that window,” she said, pointing.  “It’s the kitchen.  I used to give you baths in the sink!”

I confess to feeling emotional when she said it.  As regular readers of my blog know, my mother has been angry with me for almost two years, since I took her car away.  She forgets everything these days—what month it is, what day of the week, my kids’ names—but she never forgets that.

So to know that some aspect of my babyhood was important enough, or meaningful enough, or pleasant enough to have escaped the fog of dementia that is eating away at her brain was inordinately gratifying to me.

We have talked about that day often over the last few months.  “Remember when we saw our old house?” she always asks. There is a hint of triumph in her voice.  She wants me to acknowledge this feat for what it is, even as she refuses to admit that there is anything physically wrong with her.

Look what I found last week:

There I am at age 14 1/2 months, about three weeks before my brother was born.  (I know
because the date—September 1, 1958—is carefully inscribed on the back, in my father’s meticulous hand.)   I recognize that little cup on the window sill: my mother still has it. 
I also like that I look happy, maybe even gleeful.  Sometimes, in old pictures, I am unsmiling.  I look worried (clearly attempting to perfect what would turn out to be a lifelong condition).  But not here.

I couldn’t wait to show the picture to my mother.  I drove up to see her, as I do most weeks.  When I got her in the car, I showed it to her.  “Look at this!” I said.

My mother took the photograph from me.  “Oh!” she said.  I could tell that it didn’t mean anything to her, that she was hoping by pretending to understand what I was trying to show her, she could fool me into believing that she knew what I was getting at.

“Mom, remember our old house that we drove by?  The one you remembered, the one where you gave me a bath in the sink!  Here I am!  In the sink!  Right here!”

But she had that blank look again.

“I remember that house,” she said.  Then she pointed at the photograph.  “But who is this?”

“It’s me.  When I was a baby!”

She looked confused.  “Is this…your daughter?”

I could feel my happiness draining away, replaced by the sense of now-familiar hopelessness, of time slipping away, of anger at the relentlessness of this horrible, horrible disease.

“No, Mom.  It’s me.”

“Oh.”  She looked at it briefly.  “It’s very nice.”  Then she said, “You don’t want me to keep it, do you?”

“If you want to have it, I’d love to give it to you.”

“No,” she said mildly, handing it back.  “No, I don’t think so.”

We had a lovely day.  I drove her through the town in which I went to high school.  It’s another place she lived, another old address of which she has no memory.  “Lordy,” she breathed, looking up at the stately homes.

One of the things I’m learning about myself as I try to escort my mother through this process is that I’m a big explainer.  I’m always trying to tell people things, and to make things clearer when I don’t feel I’ve been properly understood.

I kind of like this about myself.  I value being forthright, being (relatively) transparent, being able to describe and elucidate the world in such a way that it makes sense to myself and to others. 

It makes me a good writer.

But right now, it doesn’t make me a good daughter.

So I’m trying to adjust, trying to learn new skills.  Last week, as we drove through one of the many towns in which I lived with my mother, I practiced saying things like, “Look at that tree, Mom!” and “Look at that house!”  I smiled a lot.  And I tried not to look worried.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On Old Cookbooks

am a decent enough cook.  Here’s the peach tart I made for the Fourth of July this year:

I love to follow recipes, but am terrible at making things up as I go, which I think is the hallmark of a great cook.  Also, I’m lazy about buying tools.  But I do have a nice, big kitchen to work in, and since giving up wheat almost three years ago, I’ve had plenty of incentives to improve my skills.

I used to love looking through cookbooks, and I still do, but I’ve discovered a new fascination with quirky, almost-homemade, self-published cookbooks, especially from people (usually women) who live on farms.  I especially love them if they’re older.  I don’t necessarily make things from these cookbooks, but I love the glimpses into other lives and other eras.

Case in point: the recipe entitled “Greco,” from Make It Now—Bake It Later!, by Barbara Goodfellow, written (yes, written!  Like, in pen!) in 1958.  Described as “inexpensive and different!,” Greco is a casserole comprised of chopped onion, green pepper, 2 small cans of mushrooms (oy), shell macaroni, tomato sauce, a can of cream-style corn (oy again), and a pound of ground round.

First of all, I love that in 1958, this was “different.”  Also, I love that “macaroni” is an ingredient.  (Apparently, “pasta” as a catch-all term didn’t exist back then.)  And mushrooms in cans!  Creamed corn!
In my head, I’m imagining all the mid-century mothers getting this casserole together early in the day so they could exercise along with Jack LaLanne, pick up their husbands’ dry cleaning, and get to the ironing.  And it all takes place in black and white, and no one is actually poor, and everyone lives in the house that Wally and the Beave lived in, which is to say that I know I’m thinking in outdated stereotypes and I know 1958 wasn’t really like this.  But such is the fantasy occasioned by the cookbook.  Worth the fifty cents it cost me at a used-book store years ago.

Or consider MeMa’s Manna 2: Simply Easy, Budget-Wise Recipes.  (There was an earlier MeMa’s Manna, but the general store in which I found this one was sold out of it.)  Purchased in a small town in Missouri several years ago, it features recipes designed to help “young mothers and working people that are so busy.”  MeMa (aka Mary Boll) writes in the preface, “I grew up in the most wonderful time.  Life was slow, I was allowed to be a child.  We went to town on Saturday night.  No one was scared to walk around the square by themselves.  We never locked a door on the car or in the house.  We never heard of “pot” or drugs.  That was something to cook beans in, or medicine for a cold.”

I confess to finding MeMa’s recollections enchanting, if almost certainly selective.  I did not grow up in “the most wonderful time,” but I share her longing for safety and simplicity.  And I understand what she doesn’t quite say: that our memories of childhood are so often inextricably linked to the food made by someone who loved us.

Recipes in this collection are interspersed with sentimental verse and advice (“Be careful how you live.  You may be the only Bible some people read.”)  Most of these recipes aren’t for me (Jan Lewis’s “Easy Unusual Cake” contains “1 box angel food cake mix” and “1 can lemon pie filling, or any kind”), but I enjoyed reading them and remembering the little town where I bought the book.  There is indeed a town square.  It looked quite safe to my big-city eyes, but I saw it during the light of day.  Perhaps at night, it is crawling with crack heads.

My favorite self-published cookbook to date is Cooking Through the Decades: Authentic Recipes From the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, by Alice Kertesz (available on Kindle).  Part cookbook, part memoir, the book is a charming peek into Ms. Kertesz’s early life, which was spent in rural Wisconsin.  Her mother collected recipes from other farm wives, some of whom collected water from pumps on their back porches, cooked on wood stoves, and kept milk cool in their cellars because they didn’t have refrigerators. 

Many of the recipes in this collection were given to Ms. Kertesz by the farm wives with whom she lived when she was a young teacher.  In the thirties, apparently, teachers didn’t make enough money to live on their own, and apartments were nearly unknown in rural America.  Instead, young teachers stayed with farm families, often helping out in the kitchen after the school day was over. 

I was so charmed by this book’s stories, as I was by many of the recipes: Pineapple Pie, Prune Icebox Cookies, Radio Pudding (so named because radio technology was new and it was thought that the name gave the dish a certain modern cachet), Oatmeal Pie, Mrs. Eng’s Pastel Jelly Frosting, Ketchup Cake.  I tried the Caramel Layer Cake for the Fourth of July and it was a dismal failure (I screwed up the frosting), but I’ve made the Peanut Crunch Fudge Cake, and it was delicious.  (I haven’t gotten up the nerve to try Ketchup Cake, but I’m planning on it.)

As I was throwing the caramel frosting into the sink the other night, I thought about why I have put the effort into trying these recipes, some of which contain very vague instructions more appropriate to a wood stove than to my Kitchenaid.  My mother was an indifferent cook: she didn’t enjoy cooking and didn’t much care what she put on the table each night.  In this (and in much else), she was very different from Alice Kertesz, who loved cooking for her family and went to great lengths to perfect her skills. 

When I bake one of Alice’s cakes, I become the beneficiary of her expertise, her experiences, and, most of all, her memories: of threshing, of plucking duck feathers, of teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, of making the first dessert for her future husband (Chocolate Nautilus Rolls).  I feel connected to her and the way of life she once knew, which no longer exists in this country.  In short, I am trying to claim a family history for myself that is warmer and cozier than the one I have naturally inherited. 

Lest you feel sorry for me, consider this passage from Ms. Kertesz’s book, keeping in mind that she is of sturdy Midwestern stock and would undoubtedly look askance at anyone who might try to suggest she was poorly parented (or at anyone who would use the word “parented,” for that matter):

                I started baking cakes because I wanted a birthday cake so badly.  My mother never made me a cake and I never knew why my birthday was ignored.  I began looking at and collecting cake recipes as a young woman.
        I recall one incident that happened when I was in the third grade (must have been about 1927).  A girl named Lola Nelson came to school in a new dress and stockings, carryng a new lunch box.  She told the other kids, “This is the new dress I got for my birthday and these are my new stockings.  This is my new lunch box…”  She opened it and inside was a huge wedge of cake.  “This,” she said, holding up the cake, “is what’s left of my birthday cake.”  I remember especially envying her the delicious-looking cake.

My mother didn't know how to bake a cake from scratch, but she always made me one for my birthday. It was always chocolate and always lopsided. And I always loved it.