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.

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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!

 

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The Day the Music Died

Music is what sustains me, what has always sustained me. Music is about memory and wishes and hopes and dreams. What was the soundtrack of most of my  days is now elevator and television commercial music.  It makes me feel annoyed, and somehow disrespected, some days; the music was so very good and carrying so much intention.

I know there is excellent music out there now, but it seems harder to find. My baby brother helps to send me to some of it. Some of it I find by accident. Some of it my bandmates find and share.

I am closest to the God of my understanding when I am making music. I am closest to my truest self when I am making music. I have always had a voice but in these last few years I have found my best and truest voice. And now…there is nobody to make music with during this weird time of social isolation. I miss it deeply. As a singer my most precious moments are blending my voice with the voices of others, in the amazing sound it creates when people sing in harmonious joy. Having found my bandmates is a gift beyond telling. So as a singer it is not my best to sing in isolation but I do it anyway. Belting away at the piano with just the chords as my accompaniment; I never learned to play anything other than classical music correctly.

As a musician, and someone deeply affected by music, the last years have also brought many sorrows. So many of those greats who created that soundtrack have fallen. Dr. John, Paul Barrere, Hugh Masekela, Cecil Taylor, Yvonne Staples, Charles Neville, Aretha Franklin, Marty Balin, Leon Redbone, Ginger Baker, Butch Trucks, Al Jarreau, James Cotton, Chuck Berry, J Geils, Greg Allman, Rosalie Sorrels, Glen Campbell, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Della Reese, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers and now John Prine. This is just in the last three years and it is very, very incomplete.

People refer to the Day the Music Died as the day the plane carrying Richie Valens and others went down. I feel as if my music is dying out slowly and inexorably. And each death brings me closer to my own. But I have music to make yet, and I am still standing…and still singing.

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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.

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What Now?

It is morning, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy and I feel oddly anxious in this strange unstructured life. I seem always to have something to do and I wonder how that could be. Are these things that I simply ignored when I was working, things I chose to be in denial about or that I just put off until now? Maybe they are the things I filled my nights and weekends with so that I felt that I never had a day off.

How strange to be able to say, “I can do that tomorrow” or “there is no urgency”. But I still find myself thinking I must do it now. A lifetime of structure – I need to rewire my brain.

I am off to Germany and Poland in a few days and people keep saying to me “have fun”. Although I think this trip will be interesting, spiritually fulfilling, educational and emotional, I am not sure it will be exactly fun. It is a trip to visit the places of the holocaust, that horrific time that many people choose to deny or forget just as we forget or ignore the many many genocides that have taken place in our time. There are so many, Kosovo, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Nanking, the Ukraine under Stalin, Armenia all in the last 100 years and many in my lifetime.

I am honored to be able to say Kaddish at the places my people died. I am filled with gratitude to be able to carry the memory of my Grandmother who, as a child, fled Russia with her mother and seven siblings to come to America. And I am proud to know that in a family of mixed and little faith, I carry the faith of my ancestors and represent them at a time critical in the survival of Judaism in America.

I am proud that I recently took a group of young Jewish students on an overnight trip the central purpose of which was to visit a small but powerful holocaust museum about three hours from our home Temple. We had fun too, but the impact it made on some of those young people was stunning.

So, in my unstructured life, I sat down at my computer to write, told Alexa to play some bebop and this is what I wrote.

Shalom

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