Cookies Like Memory

He cut the grass, and then it rained. And then the sun came out and the blazing heat resumed. It smelled just like my grandmother’s house during our vacations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My grandmother lived in Miami Beach.  I have lived in Florida for almost 15 years, but it has never smelled like Florida to me until that very moment.

Every summer we would go to sleep-away summer camp in Vermont, as the children of a working divorced mom. After that we always went to our Grandma Jennie’s house in Miami Beach for a week or two.

My grandmother made these amazing cookies, crunchy and not too sweet, that she kept in a hall pantry closet and doled out two at a time to my brother and me. For special occasions she made what our family calls the “cherry cookies”, very labor intensive and very yummy. I make both sometimes, generally as a gift for someone in the family as much as a gift for myself. She always made them in the shape of our initials, T for me and P for my brother. I continue that tradition, it makes them taste more like memory. I have never quite duplicated how they tasted when she made them. Like New York bagels, I think it is the water. Maybe just the taste of her fingers on the dough.

On those gloriously free summer days in the Florida heat we would go out in the afternoon sun showers and dance on the lawn in our white cotton 1950’s underwear. We would walk every day and in the little neighborhood park we would stand at the flagpole where she taught us to pledge allegiance with our grubby  hands over our hearts. We would stop at the crest of a walking bridge over a canal and look for dolphins and rainbows. We would go down to the sea and she would hold us on her lap in the ocean, bouncing with the waves, and she would sing to us “By the Sea”. That melody still comes to me occasionally unbidden.

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She lived to be over 100 years old, retaining her faculties and her home well into her nineties. When her neighborhood became predominantly Cuban, she went to the local senior center and learned Spanish so she could talk to them. When she did not feel safe to drive, she walked about four miles to groceries and back. She was extraordinarily self-sufficient, her husband having died one summer in his sleep when we were little and we were there. I went to Miami Beach once in my free wheeling hippie days with a ridiculously tall boyfriend with ridiculously long hair. It was Christmas time, although I don’t recall that she celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas, and we just turned up at her door. We were welcome, of course, because with Jennie you never ever judged a book by it’s cover.

I have long though of her as the single most influential woman that has been in my life. Not to negate my mother’s influence, of course. And I deeply regret that in my unconscious twenties and thirties and my insanely busy forties I did not find the time or energy to be more in touch with her. Life lessons, learned too late and generally unheeded by the young coming behind me.

It is useless to regret but some regrets are unavoidable, they teach us not to make the same mistakes again. But the lessons, they are to be cherished and taken to heart. This amazing woman had standards of behavior that were clear and important, but she also accepted everyone for exactly who they were regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, appearance or anything else that might make them different.

In that moment when my lawn smelled like Florida at my Grandma’s house so long ago, I hoped that I had become half the woman she was. It is good that the bar is set high.

Food is Love

A chore long overdue, sorting through my collection of recipes and organizing them in some useful way. A social isolation chore but in the end, a great thing. For me there is  joy in discovering forgotten recipes, things I saved that I thought I might try, things I wrote notes on because they were particularly good or needed adjustment. I can read cookbooks for hours so this is not surprising. What was surprising was just how many good and interesting recipes I have collected over the years.

Many of the recipes are things I made with my father, my step mom and, surprisingly, my mother. Surprising because my mother has long claimed she can’t cook; I think she just doesn’t like it. Other recipes are ones that came from my Grandma Jenny, family favorites,  used again and again -especially for Jewish holidays. One, long neglected and forgotten, was from my maternal great grandmother. It was entitled Grandmother Roe’s Nut Bread.

I have always liked making bread, and I always knead it by hand; especially now that my Kitchenaid is 30 years old give or take. There is something very satisfying about developing the gluten and putting your whole body into getting that smooth beautiful surface that means it is ready to rise. It also moves frustration from your neck to your hands to the board; rhythmic and soothing.

What I noticed, going through these pages, was that the oldest recipes, the ones from grandmothers and great grandmothers (and mothers) are the ones with the least instruction. The ingredients are listed and stand mostly alone, just an oven temp to keep them company. It is as if it was assumed that the cook would know how to do it. How to mix and in what order. How to knead and when to stop. How to test for doneness. Mostly, I do. In order to pass these recipes on I suspect I will have to amplify them somewhat for newer, younger and less experienced cooks.

It is a lovely feeling to mix and knead and bake with the same ingredients and in the same ways as the woman, and men, before me. Recipes used by generations and family long gone.  We connect through food as surely as any other way. It is why we sit down together for thanksgiving, for passover, for chanukah. It is why we gift each other cookies we ate as children, doled out by a loving hand. I know these things in my bones. Food is memory, food is connection, food can be love. And the nut bread is absolutely delicious!

 

Aloneness

Each time I leave my mother’s home, I feel keenly that it could easily be the last time I ever see her. She is turning 92 and in relatively good health but she is turning 92 and is frail as one is at that age. It is a subdued kind of sadness as the inevitable approaches.

Each time I leave my mother's home, I feel keenly that it could easily be the last time I ever see her. She is turning 92 and in relatively good health but she is turning 92 and is frail as one is at that age. It is a subdued kind of… Click To Tweet

My father has been gone quite a few years and I miss him still although he wasn’t much of a dad; he was interesting though, and taught me to appreciate tools and their use. But as usual I digress.

When they are both gone it will seem odd, and we are a very small family. So I have been reflecting on this special kind of aloneness. If the world turns the right way, it will happen to us all; children are meant to bury their parents. While we will always miss them, it is the natural order of things and doesn’t feel wrong; life fills the spaces. And we, the children, are meant to become those that we have buried. Parents fervently pray never to have to bury a child, it is unnatural and a kind of aloneness that cannot ever be remediated.

And as I was leaving my mother’s home most recently, for the maybe last time, I learned that my son and his fiancee, who have lived with me for quite some time, will be gone in a matter of days. I was married for roughly twenty seven years, I have been single for roughly three and one half years, during all of that time my son has lived with me. My son’s dog has lived with us. And of late, my son’s fiancee. I have not lived in an empty house for approximately 30 years and it is odd; not necessarily bad – just odd.

Having retired about eight months ago, and just now settled into not travelling, I am at home during the day for the first time in fifty years. My life seems slightly alien, as if it is really someone else’s life and I am just playing at living it. The house is silent now if I don’t play music or turn on the TV. I have become extremely aware of small sounds like the icemaker, the dishwasher and the cat wheezing softly in his sleep.

This all sounds rather pathetic and sad but really, my life is full of people and things to do. I teach, I sing, I write, I deal with my mother’s business, I listen to people talk on the phone, I go to lunch, I take care of my home. Etcetera. I have a full and beautiful life, I am just not used to what it feels like now. But I am moving into my own life, a day at a time. This is aloneness that has remedies. And my son calls.

Hiraeth

I lie in this old bed, with it’s lacy sheets and long history, in this rambling old box of a house. I think of all the loves, and not so, that have shared this place with me; some better unremembered. Just one whose absence is painful; not a husband in case you wondered.

This old box holds my memories, fifty years gone though it never was really home. In a life where I never really settled anywhere for long, it became a kind of symbolic home, a place to come back to. It has a familiarity that only long time places have. The dangerous winding road that brings me here is not dangerous to me, even in the ice and dark, as I know it so well. The seasons of flowers and fruit trees, some now gone and some just feeding the bears, are like my own seasons; as familiar as breathing.

The seasons of my life are, in some ways measured here although I will always think of myself as a New Yorker. This is the lodestar place, the peaceful place and the occasional refuge despite the vagaries of familial relationships. Every part of this place is a marker of memory; puppies now gone and buried in the lawn, my son racing naked in the grass, the smell of our first horse, the view from a bedroom window. This is where I came from college, from the wreck of my time in D.C., this where I found recovery, this is where I came on holidays from law school, this is where I began my career, this is where my son was born.

I realized recently that where I live, both town and house, has been my home for the longest in my entire lifetime. What an odd thing, from birth to this moment I have never stopped anywhere for this long. And I never imagined it would be where I would finally light for good. Perhaps there is one more place, who can tell?

Now, as I watch my mother decline along with this old box, I know that all of our time here is drawing to a close. And while I know that I cannot and would not go back, there are those moments I wish I could revisit. The roads not taken, the seasons not fully appreciated. Regret is useless but human, not a place to linger. Gratitude is where I have to live, that this old box has sheltered me until I could stand alone. It is a new season in my life, I am not done.

Nature and Love

February 8, 2019

There is something starkly beautiful about a New England winter. For some reason I find myself here almost every year at this time or at least in some wintery place. But the gray landscape lends itself to introspection. At least here on this mountaintop, I am isolated with just two of my immediate family, my mother and brother. And so, often, I am alone with my thoughts. Since I don’t ski, or snowshoe, it is just me and the fire and watching the snow melt on this strange day.

I will hardly be the first person to say that your family is who they are and sometimes you love them in spite of yourself and in spite of themselves. I was told recently to remember that there is family you choose and family you don’t choose. And you love them differently. And sometimes, there is the family that chooses you.

Over time, people have come into my life that I love very much. I did not know that I could love as much as I do. I did not know how much I would value the love and friendship of the women in my life. And I did not know how much I would value and be touched by the people I have known the longest and who I see the least .

When I was young, all I understood of love was sex and marriage. As an aside, marriage has not worked out well for me. But marriage gave me my son, from whom I have learned a very different kind of love; The kind for which you would throw yourself in front of a moving train.

It is always interesting to me the extent to which nature, the weather, the scenery affects my mood and feelings. Sometimes it affects my optimism. Sometimes it is all about memory. When I come to this place it is full of memories of people, events and love past. And it is full of the present – thoughtful, joyful, difficult.

It has taken these years of living to begin to understand the nature of love for me. And it is all of the above, thoughtful, joyful, difficult, memorable. How happy I am that I have begun to understand the difference between need, want and love.