Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Butcher's Kiss


I have a kitchen angel. He's been with me in every apartment I've ever had, watching over culinary endeavors from his spot on the wall, giving a blessing in the form of a kiss. The angel was once a living man, a butcher in a small grocery near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street in New York City. His name was Frank, and he was captured through the lens of my mother's camera in the 1980s. In black and white, his portly frame leans toward the viewer, lips puckered and hand lifted in the moment of having blown a kiss. He's in his stained whites, paper hat on his head, an average workday. There's a story behind the photo, and I remember it this way: My mother was taking a photography class, and for an assignment she was focusing on service industry workers on their breaks, "taking five" from the demands of their jobs. I am pretty certain Frank was part of this series, along with a shoeshine man named Neal—his chair in front of the N/R subway entrance on 57th Street—and also a woman in a Chinese laundry, bent over her ironing board. The photos really capture the day's pauses, taken with leisure, humor, or only partial acquiescence to the idea of repose. Frank worked with some other guys at the butcher counter where my mother sometimes shopped. She asked him if she could take his picture, and without warning he blew his spontaneous kiss at the decisive moment. My mother returned to the store some time later (days or weeks, I don't know), and she took a print of the photograph with her. I don't recall if that was the time when Frank first was absent, or if he accepted the photo. Either way, it ended up hung on the wall behind the counter. And then one day, it was no longer there, nor was Frank. My mother found out from the other butchers that he had passed away, and that Frank's widow, who saw the photo and loved it, had requested to take it home, which was of course impossible to refuse. The guys asked my mother for another print to replace the one that used to hang in their workspace, and she obliged, happily but with sadness, too. Frank's kiss had been a good-bye kiss, unbeknownst to everyone except perhaps him. I don't really remember Frank, though I assume I met him. I will always remember this story, though, and how it touched my mom, gave us all a shiver and a bow to fate. All these years later, despite being hopeless with meat—I can't remember my cuts, don't own a proper butcher knife—I have Frank to watch over me, and my kitchen has always felt comforting for his presence.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Catskill Camping


Eight years ago today, my husband and I were watching stars in the night sky, listening to the sounds of a creek flowing through the Woodland Valley Campground in Phoenicia, NY. Woodland Valley is a beautiful site in the Catskills, at the foot of Slide Mountain, which is the range's highest peak. In our tent, we curled close together. We needed beauty, badly. Just four days earlier, our sense of normalcy was shattered, permanently, along with our sense of peace and protection, of safety and justice. A half-day previous, we'd met my father in Grand Central Station, and caught a train with him up to Connecticut. He'd been in the city for a meeting; we were heading out to borrow a car and escape to the mountains. It was the first time I'd seen either of my parents since the 9/11 attacks, and something in me cracked wide open when I saw my father's solid presence standing at the terminal's info booth, waiting. I hadn't realized how much I was feeling the shock and hurt; I thought I'd been doing a great job of holding it all together, and I guess I had—I even fooled myself—but I melted into tears when we hugged. He was the symbol of security to me (a heavy burden to assign a human), and a symbol also of continuity, of things-being-as-they-always-were. But as we stood there, embracing and then looking up at the boards to find our train's track, something else happened: a group of perhaps half a dozen firefighters came through the terminal, and every person in that great hall began to applaud them. We boarded our train, happy to be leaving the city. Once we saw my father home and borrowed a car from my parents, my husband and I drove on, in relative silence, heading across the Tappan Zee bridge where we could not tear our eyes from the smoky, gaping hole of the skyline seen down the Hudson. We arrived at Woodland Valley to find a nearly deserted campground. It was already late in the season. The time we spent there, a couple of nights only, was an escapist paradise. We hiked the Slide-Wittenberg trail to where the sun kissed the rocks and warmed the earth. We made love there—the desperate kind of act that tries to nullify death as it provides its corporeal comfort and release. We ate homemade quiche and peeled back the skin of oranges; we drank water, crossed a stream bed, picked our way across uneven ground. We've been back several times since, and it's always a beautiful visit. Our son has come to enjoy the place, also: the stars he doesn't get to see in the city, the ritual of a campfire, of s'mores and sleeping three to a tiny tent; he looks forward to completing the "Junior Naturalist" workbooks each year and earning patches as badges of honor. The place, for me, is always a reminder of the healing power of the natural world—for although we were not completely healed in that September visit, the healing process did begin in greenery there, in the Catskills, at the campground I will always think of as "ours."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kiddie Crushes

My First Crush
In first grade, I had a huge crush on a boy with the initials N. B. He had brown hair, bowl-cut style, long lashes over dark eyes. He was nice, not loud like many of the other boys. I remember a little kiss, but not sure if I'm inventing that—some small, innocent kid connection happened below an overhang on the playground where I was hula hooping with some other girls. At home, I took a tiny notepad my mother gave me and wrote a story in it in pencil about how we would be married. I didn't think again about marriage until twenty more years went by. I don't know whatever happened to N. B., and I haven't tried to find him. If I did discover his adult self on social media, I wouldn't contact him; it would be too weird, there's nothing to say. I don't know if he liked me, too, or what "liking" a boy or girl would even mean to a first-grader in the 1970s, but still, I remember him as my very first crush. Fondly.

First Crush on My Son
Things happen younger with each generation, it seems. While reading was the first-grade curriculum in my Chicago school, now it's taught in kindergarten. While first grade was also the time of my first crush, girls now apparently develop mini crushes in pre-K. I remember and want to preserve the memory of the first time I knew a girl had a crush on my son. She was a sweet girl, quiet—this mostly because of language issues, though: she was from Japan and this one school year was her first (maybe only) one in the United States. I'll call her Y. She had a difficult year, cried often when her mother dropped her off, but I suspect she was all right during classroom hours, particularly given the competence of the teacher. For a reason known only to her, Y. became attached to my son. Maybe he'd made a gesture of welcoming her into the class. Around this time, he had been reading the book Yoko, which is also about a girl (well, a cat character who is depicted like a girl) who comes from Japan to attend a kindergarten where other kids make fun of her lunch selections. My son loved this book, and he talked often about the sushi in her bento box, so maybe he was primed to be kind to Y. I don't think she followed him, probably didn't even try to interact directly (or not much). But she did draw him pictures and put them in his "mailbox" right outside the classroom. This is how I knew she liked him. He liked her, too, but in typical boy fashion, had no concept of her "liking" having any special quality to it. Her drawings were some of the sweetest I've seen—and definitely the best among the turning-five set. She'd left stick figures behind, and she drew bodies wearing smart clothes. She drew herself with a ponytail at the side of her head, wearing a dress; she drew my son next to her, and he was always wearing a T-shirt with a number on the front of it. In fact, he did always wear a shirt like that—he loved "number shirts," because they made it easy for him to pretend he was a professional player on some sports team. I was amazed that she observed this about him and thought to put it in her pictures. There was no mistaking who the two drawn people were! And there, floating in the sky between them, a heart. They only had that one year of school together, and I don't know where the family is now: they may have moved back to Japan. I wonder if Y will remember—as my own crush stayed with me, thirty years later—what she felt for my son. She may or may not, but I will always remember her, also fondly, because she's the first one who saw in my son something worth expressing on paper from her own observant soul.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Bushwhacking


So, my mention of Irish colcannon in yesterday's Portugal post (both countries have traditional recipes with potato and kale) now has me thinking of Ireland. Ireland brings many memories, some I've already posted on the blog, but one I have not yet mentioned: bushwhacking. In September of 1995, my parents and I visited the Emerald Isle. It was my second of three trips and their first and only. My father made all the arrangements—he is personal travel agent extraordinaire, as I may have mentioned elsewhere—and he decided to rent a car for our travels up and down the rocky western coast. For small group travel through Ireland, car rental is a great way to go, but it does entail some hazards. Actually, this is another thing that Ireland has in common with Portugal: for some years, the two countries have seemed to compete fiercely for the unhappy distinction of having the most traffic accidents in Western Europe. For locals used to the lay of the land, things like extremely narrow roads, hairpin turns, roundabouts, and sheep crossings pose no difficulty. For tourists, these are all potential sources of stress, and you've got to pay extra attention. Which is what my father did, certainly. In fact, he overcompensated. His greatest challenge was not the traffic circles or the narrow cliff-hugging passages (those rattle my mom: read this post for proof), rather, it was driving on the opposite side of the road; that is, on the left. Generally, when driving in a different environment, a person can expect the acclimation period to last about a day. My father, however, really never did get used to driving on the left side. He did it, mind you—we had no incidents—but he was so concerned, and so unused to it, that he routinely ended up with his driver's side-view mirror scraping along whatever shrubbery lined the shoulder. Like most similar travel quirks, this became humorous after a while. There he'd be, so far over to the left, allowing room for any oncoming cars (on roads so narrow, any sane person would consider them one-way); he'd put us in the bushes again, prune the greenery, and we started calling him the "bushwhacker." Our travels in Ireland that year were lovely, the Ring of Kerry stunning with its cliffs and verdant hills—but by the time we left, I have to say, there were a few less leaves on the Irish branches.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Smoothies in Portugal


Today, I purchased a fabulous cookbook: The New Portuguese Table, by David Leite. It has traditional recipes as well as updated recipes that bear the personal stamp of the author. The photographs are lovely, and I can't wait to try the recipes. But more than just whetting my appetite, this purchase brought back memories. In May of 1991, my parents and I had the good fortune to visit Portugal. This was following my college semester abroad in France, where I had stayed with an inhospitable host family and worked a job at La Defense. Study abroad is usually no holiday, despite how magnificent the surroundings and how eye-opening the experience; it's often quite difficult. I was in need of a vacation, and had a splendid one. My parents came to meet me in Paris, then we took a short hop to Lisbon and from there headed toward the resort town of Cascais. We stayed in a posh hotel by the the water—one that was at one time a private home, a royal summer retreat—the Hotel Albatroz. The hotel overlooked the harbor of Cascais and the Estoril Coast, and I remember the crisp, white-linen restaurant with its panoramic views of the water. I remember tasting a soup I loved, caldo verde, a peasant's soup made with potato and kale (a combination I love equally in the Irish dish, colcannon). I remember many sublime things about our time there, the beautiful black-and-white mosaic streets of Portugal, the church bell towers stretching into the blue sky . . . I also have an absurd family memory, one that my mom and I teased my dad about for years. My father does not talk much about his dreams; I can probably count on one hand the number of times he's told me of a dream he's had. One morning at Hotel Albatroz, we met downstairs in the restaurant for breakfast, and my father told us of the weird dream he'd had that night. He was sitting in a chair, and some man was asking him "How many smoothies do you want?" Although this was a reference to chilled fruit and yogurt drinks, in the dream my father understood that this was meant to be something sinister, as though a smoothie were some kind of bitch-slap and my dad was about to get worked over. Later that same year, around the time of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins, we were visiting my dad's mother in Florida, and my father had another dream; this time he was apparently plagued by the Twins' player Chuck Knoblauch. The Portugal dream and this one ended up combined in family lore, so that we'd tease my father with spooky voices saying, "Knob-lauch, Knob-lauch . . . How many smoothies do you want?" It's all absurd, as I said, but so often our memories are just that: an odd mish-mash of time and place, strange associations that stick, such as the mixture of a refined Portuguese accommodation, a soup of potato and kale, sinister smoothies, and an all-star second baseman.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Memory . . . in Memory of


It couldn't have been a gloomier day in New York City today, weather-wise. Lashing rain, wind whistling, dull gray sky. Outside this morning, with my umbrella not only flipping inside out but crumpling into a jagged mess of misshapen wires, I was about to recite a litany of complaints (running late, getting wet, and so forth), when I saw a group from our local fire department—Engine 16, Ladder 7, on East 29th Street; the guys who routinely wave to my son and who welcomed his kindergarten class to the firehouse this past spring. They were in dress blues, one wearing a kilt and carrying a bagpipe, and my selfish bones to pick about the weather fell away. I was left with gratitude—not just toward the fire fighters but for the fact that I am alive to feel the rain and wind. September 11. This date sneaks up on me now, which shows the effect of eight years' time. I used to anticipate it as soon as the calendar page turned from August to September. It has become perhaps too indulgent or exploitative to review 9/11 memories at this point, but although I considered avoiding the topic, that too seemed false. Eight years ago, I was living with my husband (then fiancĂ©) on West 57th Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, with a direct line of sight to the Twin Towers from our 10th floor balcony. At the time, we were both keeping restaurant hours—I did so because I could, and if I didn't adapt to my husband's night-owl schedule, we'd never see each other. This is why we were still sleeping late into the eight o'clock hour on a Tuesday morning. Everyone knows now, how beautiful the day was, how the sun was shining in a bright blue sky. A perfect fall day in the city. The phone rang: it was my mother calling to tell me what she was hearing on the radio. I rolled out of bed, looked out the window. I could see black smoke streaming from the North Tower. Not long after, another column of smoke appeared; we were too far away to see anything more detailed. I turned on my own radio, got my husband up, and paced around the apartment. At some point, though, we decided to go about our day; most people in the city at this time were still assuming they could just continue with routine. No one realized yet—no one could fathom—what was happening. I began to get ready for a yoga class that started at 10:00. Since I was awake, I might as well go exercise. I put on workout clothes, still listening to the news. I remember the exact moment when I knew that something was very, very wrong and that whatever was happening was not accidental, despite having no idea what it was: I was stooping down in the coat closet, my eyes trained on the jumble of shoes covering the floor, picking out my sneakers, when I heard the report of the Pentagon strike. Somehow, that bit of information more than the sight of billowing smoke outside our own window impressed upon me the seriousness of the situation, and when I heard it, I sank down among the shoes. I'm not sure I had any solid idea why I started to cry, why I felt personally threatened and scared at that moment—we still had no idea what had truly happened, it was all confusion and speculation—there was nothing I could articulate, but dread washed over me. And the best thing I could think of to do was carry on, walk to the gym. Another thing I have been thankful for, is that I did just that, took myself away from the windows in this way. In the gym before class, a crowd stood around the lobby's television, and I saw more of the smoky scene unfolding downtown. Still, at a minute to ten, I was inside the yoga studio, feet now bare, (another row of shoes around the room's perimeter), my body stretching. I was spared a live view of the towers collapsing. The gym, however, did close down not long after the South Tower's destruction. Word was passed to the yoga teacher, who made the announcement and terminated class. We gathered our things, followed fire procedure, and left through some concrete stairwell I never knew was there; I was disoriented down on the street. We all were. I remember faces on my walk home: people's eyes, usually avoiding direct contact with others, were now seeking, questioning, searching for signs mirrored in the eyes of passersby. When I got back to the apartment, I went to the balcony and looked at a surreal patch of nothing where our small bit of recognizable New York skyline used to rise so solidly. My husband came home after me, everyone sent away from the restaurant where he had gone for his own distraction, for a semblance of normalcy. He had been at Windows on the World just the day before; the knowledge was a spectral finger caressing the spine. We held each other and stared into a hollowness that lingers still. And I am sorry for all the days since that I have neglected to fill to the brim with energy, love, precious life. I remember that day in 2001, of course. Always will. Tonight I post my 9/11 memory in memory of those who were not fortunate enough to be spared—including those from the firehouse around the corner. Their sacrifices remind me of what is truly important.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thermopylae


At one time or another, I think most kids are enthralled by some type of build-it-yourself model, be it an antique car, an airplane, train, or ship in a bottle. Ranking high on the list of parent-child "quality time" activities, model building seems almost clichĂ©—makes me wonder how many models are built simply because it's something a parent is "supposed" to do with a child; one of those experiences like fishing or running a lemonade stand, that you are practically obligated to provide if you want your child's early years to be truly complete. And, especially if working on a historic model, it's a project with built-in nostalgia: even as you're only just beginning to work on it, you know you are making classic memories, constructing a keepsake treasure of time spent together, tweezers and glue in hand, brushes carefully caressing the miniature pieces. Something about the scene makes me think of a Norman Rockwell illustration. It's very Saturday Evening Post. Like many children, I have memories of such a project—but memories only; there's no finished product. I suppose that the model-abandoned-in-the-garage/basement/attic is not so uncommon. I don't know what happened to ours, but my father and I often joke about the clipper ship that never came to be. We joke about it largely because of the slogan that was written on the box: "Build a Legend in a Weekend!" Ha. The legend in question was the famous China tea-trade clipper, the Thermopylae. Launched in 1868, the Thermopylae gained notoriety on her maiden voyage, from Aberdeen to Melbourne via Shanghai, breaking records for speed all along the way. She was a fast, beautiful ship, with a green hull, gilded scroll work; her figurehead was a representation of the Greek King of Sparta, Leonidas. The Thermopylae got her name from the battle of Thermopylae, fought in 480 B.C. by allied Greeks against invading Persians, whose advance they blocked at the pass of Thermopylae (translated, according to some online sources, as "the hot gates." So mixed with the romance of the high seas, there was a nod to ancient Greek history. Here's what I remember about our model: hundreds of small, plastic pieces that needed to be separated, painted, glued . . . if we could only figure out where they went. It was a complicated undertaking. We had the box, the pieces, the instructions scattered over the dining room table. I remember my dad and I laying down newspaper, getting small jars of water, using the tiny brushes. I remember our two heads bent together over the work in progress. I don't remember if we focused only on the ship, or if we talked of other things, too, while we worked. I remember the time fondly, and yet—neither of us was motivated to push the project to completion. I don't know why really. We lost our patience, I suppose—though not with each other. Guilty, we'd put away the pieces, take them out again and add on a couple, put it away once more. Eventually, we put the model out of sight, and in time we got rid of it completely. The real Thermopylae also met with a sad end. Sold to the Portuguese Navy, the ship was sunk—some say by target practice—in the first decade of the twentieth century. Its remains were eventually discovered by divers off the coast near Lisbon. But ours was a failure we ultimately agreed to acknowledge in good spirit. We didn't need a model ship to force us together in hours of bonding, and these days, when something seems comically impossible, we will still look at each other and simultaneously say, "build a legend in a weekend," shake our heads and laugh. Family legends take a lifetime.