The Whole Cooking Thing

“Spice Up Your Dinner With an Asian Salad,” the entreaty came, sprawled across my computer screen. Go ahead. Spice it all up. As if it’s not already spiced, or partially spiced, or certainly spiced enough, given the other issues of the day. Immediately, upon reading the dictate, I had visions of serving people in kimonos, chopsticks in their hair, rice paddies to their backs. Scents of soy and teryaki infiltrated my olfactories and I, let alone my kitchen table, felt instantly, well, spiced up.

I don’t mind cooking. When I was first learning, I viewed it as a creative process. I worked in the department of a women’s magazine that edited food stories, so I read a lot of recipes, mainly to make sure that “T” meant tablespoon and that we said “1/4 tsp” instead of “1/4 cup.” That is bad, when it comes to salt. And yeast. During this time, I also amassed quite a collection of plates and cups and such, none related, except to me. 

Before I had babies, I was at my zenith. Top of my culinary arc. The corona. I made a lot of tasty and beautiful things. Now, fourteen years after they were babies, I still cook most every night, but have fallen into a bit of a predictable pattern, I must say. I have the books, I have the knack, I have the inventive spark. But by the time dinner comes around, I’ve used them all up on other endeavors.

So, when I was told, so forcefully, to spice up my dinner with an Asian salad, I took a little offense. Who the heck are you, telling me to make an Asian salad. But then, I realized that making an Asian salad is exactly the kind of thing I would do if I had the time. I would make the time, I declared, talking to the screen. I read on.

You, that would be me, will need…dried shrimp, sliced pork, hot chilies, preserved radish. What is “preserved” radish? And how long has it been preserved? And in what, where, how, by whom? Okay, then. Preserved radish, fish sauce, and to round out the list of staples I would have in our pantry, tamarind juice. Oh yes, pass me a little tamarind juice, won’t you? It’s right there, on the shelf next to the oyster butter.

Please. 

I lost my enthusiasm. I cannot cook an Asian salad, tonight anyway. I will have to fly to Korea to buy the ingredients. This is insane, I thought. Often, I play a sort of game-show game with myself. I am told that I must cook a meal using just five ingredients that exist in my freezer, fridge and pantry. Sometimes, I get to use six. Then, ready, set, go…select them, whirl the possibilities in my head, and begin.

I clicked off the Asian salad web page and went into the kitchen. Mushrooms, carrots, hoisin sauce, chicken, rice. You want Asian? You got it.


When Parents Argue

A study done by researchers at Montclair State University in New Jersey says that parents who stay in high-conflict marriages cause more harm in their kids than if they split up. If kids witness years of yelling and arguing, they will suffer in the end. Better to see less strife. But we knew that already.

It is a scary thing to decide to go separate ways, if there are kids to consider. It is hard to predict future effects. I have always maintained that since people on earth disagree and argue, kids should see people disagreeing and arguing. And they should see them settle differences, compromise, find solutions and shake hands. Sometimes, people can’t shake hands. Sometimes, they never settle, or agree to disagree, or play fair, or show good sportsmanship. So, that is why this study makes sense. 

I think that in these cases, it is better to explain to kids who will one day choose mates how to choose mates who can argue and disagree and then figure it all out. Ta da.  

Just a Little Mom Thought

So, Mom and I talk every morning on the phone. She is in New York. I am in Texas. We have the same kinds of conversations that we’d have if we were next door neighbors. Yesterday, we were talking about kids, and how you can expose them, and show them, and lead them, and set they up for all great things, but that you cannot do the great things for them. You can, and should, let them know the great things are possible, achievable, with hard work, and sometimes, if you are lucky, with less hard work. But in the end, you you cannot play the trumpet, dance the dance, take the test. 

Some parents, I think, let themselves off the hook, knowing that they can’t take the test. “Well, little Jimmy will just have to figure it out for himself.” That is ridiculous, when little Jimmy is, well, little. And kids are little longer than they are not, or longer than you think. Some adults are still little. I say, tell him what he is capable of and what is expected. Give him the ball, the book, the paintbrush and no room to back down. Kids don’t know about humps, and even less about getting over them. It is our job to make them reach the hump. Once on the other side, they will be happy we did.

This is all rather general, I know. I have a story, but my daughter wouldn’t want me to tell it. I will say, though, that she is now on the far side of the hump. I have gotten “Thank yous.” She has gotten more. 

 


Wait Just a Minute

The kitchen clock stopped working. This is not astounding, I realize, but there is meaning in its demise, a message. No, not about time hanging mid-tick, or passing, underutilized, nothing prosaic like that, let alone guilt-provoking. Nothing about my buying it twenty-three years ago for my first Manhattan apartment, so modern, slick, or toting it to five different cities and ten different kitchens, without kids and with, with mates and without. None of that. Today, the clock, though stuck, still serves.

Before I knew this, though, I took it down from the wall, feeling the way you do when something gives out. I attempted to resuscitate it, trying assorted batteries, tapping its sides, flipping it like a dime, sun from the window catching its silver face. But the hands remained still. That is it, I thought. I put my clock on the counter. Done. We did not need a functional object not to function, not to tell my daughters and me what the time is, really, the time that other people know and rely upon, then, that minute. We would replace it with something new and effective.

But then, I looked at the wall, yellow, naked, except for the nail. It would have been easy to wiggle it out, just a firm grip at its base. I grabbed it with my thumb and forefinger, then let go, sitting down at the table underneath. I cook every night, a complete meal from scratch, no matter how busy, how much homework, how late practice runs. And we sit at the table and have dinner, give the report, tell the joke, relay the story. Was there an allele question on the test? Mommy, any news about the book? You wouldn’t believe what Mr. Matthews did today.

It is hard not to check the hour, with so much left to finish before the day ends. I wish the time at the table could be longer. It is an important time. It struck me, at the table in front of the wall, that we could put the ticking on hold, laugh at it, dare it not to press on. I picked up my twenty-three year old clock, bold and shiny, and threaded the nail right back into its hook. Eight-seventeen, the hands read, at two p.m. Audacious, it was. Wild.

With fresh purpose, and a certain spunk, it now protests the minutes that are too quick, the seconds that are too full, stealing for us a wonderful and reliable pause.

                       

Ladies of the House

We got the Sylvania in 1970. It felt big in all ways, a monolithic cube of wonder to ten year old eyes. Until the television arrived, crossing the threshold of our suburban split-level like jetsam from a futuristic ship, we were happy enough with the standard appliance in the corner of my parents’ bedroom, even if you had to nudge the antennas every third minute to clear out the picture. But this bit of technology promised more than we ever thought could emanate from a machine in our house. We were part of progress. We had a color TV.

Its predecessor went to the basement. The Zenith, a black and white. MaryJane lived in the basement. She was the second maid to live there. Not housekeepers, but maids. There was a distinction, I presume, but I could not define it then. Betty was the first, hired two weeks before my mother and I both began kindergarten, she as a teacher and me, a student in puffed sleeves and tennis sneaks. One of Betty’s hands was missing fingers, but she could tie shoelaces and attach safety pins and chop whatever needed chopping for dinner. Betty lived in our finished basement from Sunday evening until the following Friday, when she left by taxi to go somewhere, home, maybe. Three decades of black women followed her, making the weekly trip from a New York borough to Westchester, by train or bus, or both, earning money to send to family in “the islands” or elsewhere. Sons, daughters, husbands, in-laws…we never quite knew, or knew why.

MaryJane worked in a beer factory before moving to New York to clean houses. It think it was Milwaukee. She was in her twenties, slim and efficient. We played games in a spiral notebook after school sometimes, word hunts, mainly, in ball point pen. The basement was a large rectangle, with a trapezoidal alcove cut into one of the walls, long enough for a twin bed, wide enough for a dresser. My mother had provided bolsters for the bed, so it could pretend to be a couch during the daytime. The Zenith sat on a gold metal stand, with wheels and a basket underneath. On the front of the set, MaryJane taped a square sheet of pliable plastic, striped in a rainbow of colors. The black and white images behind it turned yellow or turquoise or green, but without regard for what they were. A person’s face could have been half-purple, half-red. An apple, orange. An orange, blue.

MaryJane wasn’t part of the progress, I sensed, then, in my wood-paneled cellar in New Rochelle, New York. But she wanted to be.

It wasn’t long that it began to bother me that maids, and only black maids, worked in our home, a liberal home, an intellectual home. I didn’t like that they ate meals after we did, by themselves. I didn’t like that they never used the phone. I started to go into the kitchen, early, and help them prepare, and afterwards, clear as many plates as I could carry. I learned their daily schedules and hurried to make my bed and straighten up my room before they came upstairs. No toothpaste hit the bathroom sink. I didn’t like that the women served me, and I didn’t like that the women were black. My parents didn’t choose them because they were black, clearly. They just were. All of them were, lined up in chairs against the wall at Mrs. B’s, the domestic agency in Larchmont where Mom went to pick them up their first day.

I’ve come to realize that my notion of race and equality was formed early, in my childhood house, and because of the presence there of Betty and MaryJane and Winnifred and Annie, women who straddled culture and class and burned in me, a white child from an affluent family, the necessity of respect.

The ladies who lived in my house–the employees, companions and quiet witness to our family dynamics–served my psyche, I know now, more than anything else.

Life Lemons

I was standing on the sidewalk in front of my house on Saturday when a little girl, maybe nine, ran towards me.

“Did you see three boys with a lemonade jar?” she asked, panting.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“They stole our jar right off the table,” she said, pointing a half block behind her where two other girls were standing. “We were having a lemonade stand.”

“They stole your lemonade from your lemonade stand,” I said, aghast.

“Yes.”

“Swiped it right off the table?”

“Yes, and then they ran this way.”

“That is awful,” I said, “and completely criminal. Are your parents home?”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell them?”

“No.”

Wow. Taking the law into her own hands, and feet. She was fast.

“Go tell them, and maybe you could get into the car and look for the boys. And meantime, I will keep my eyes open.” 

She thanked me and sped off. It was quite the prank, I thought. But usually, pranksters know their subjects. And they come back later to laugh about it. These were strange boys, though, which made the act feel malevolent and immoral. They did not know the little girls. They weren’t big brothers. They weren’t going to return with the jar, I didn’t think.

Hard to turn this one into lemonade.


Listen To This

So…my kids come home from school and ask about the speech. My eighth grader tells me that her English teacher wanted to show it, “but wasn’t allowed.” She rolled her eyes and confirmed that we are a country that advocates free speech. Right?

We figured that their other teachers might have liked their students to listen to the President, too, but “they would probably lose their jobs.”

Imagine that. Thinking that your teacher could be fired for supporting the idea that kids should work hard, do their best and stay in school. 

We watched the speech, which I had recorded. They thought it was great. We talked about how it was relevant for all kids, no matter their personal situation. They applied the ideas to their own lives.

Thank you, President Obama, for a heartfelt and critical message, even if we did have to stay up late to rewind it.


What a Party

Turns out, Fern has a thing for bracelets. She was already wearing a few on one wrist. The one my daughter made was a welcome addition. She loved it. Put it right on. She asked my older daughter if she were an artist, since the card was so beautiful. She made the letters extra large, congratulating her on reaching 100.

The place was packed, apparently. All of the residents were there, in the dining room, in their wheelchairs or standing with walkers. Some went over to Fern to wish her a happy birthday. One started to, then forgot what she was going to say. Fern’s son (the girls thought he was about 75) sang for an entire hour, with a pianist. My daughter said that Fern sat and watched him, her hands clasped under her chin, smiling. Her grandkids (my age) were there, too, with their own children. 

They had cake and ice cream, sugar-free. My kids set up the room, brought the guests downstairs, served, made sure everyone had spoons, and then moved around the furniture when the party was over. The grandkids thanked them for coming to celebrate Fern’s special birthday, and for helping in so many ways. 

They said they had a fun time. They felt good that they made the presents. Important work, and I think they realize.


Big Day

My daughters have been volunteering at a retirement home for about six months. They go on weekends, holidays and now, with free summer days, on afternoons when it is too hot to be outside. In Texas, you stay indoors between noon and four, if you can.

They love old people. They think they are cute. Charming, and funny. They point them out when they see them, particularly the couples. I’m not sure when the fascination began, but as soon as they were old enough, I called around to various homes and found one near our house. The girls have helped with manicures and parties. They have delivered mail, wheeled wheelchairs. They have hung calendars up in rooms…too high, too low, perfect. Served juice. Handed out menus… a highlight.

Yesterday, they got the July calendar, listing all of the events planned for the month. There were word games and wine and cheese, memory exercises, outings to the movie theatre. Today, there is a birthday. Fern Ives is turning 100. They will not miss today. How often do you get to attend such a celebration.

“She doesn’t look 100,” they said.  “There are younger people there who look much older.” We figured out that if you are still around at 100, you are probably doing pretty well. Hence, the youthful glow.

The other night, my younger daughter strung a bracelet for Fern. She used beads with letters printed on them and spelled out her name. Put it in a box and wrapped it, with green paper and a pink bow. My other child has chosen to make a card. I am curious to see what she writes. Later, they will arrive early. Big day.

Oh No, It’s Just Me

Married moms often get flustered when their husbands are not around. They worry about how they will do everything, how they will get the kids where they need to go, how they will put dinner on the table, gas in the car, homework in the brain, whatever it is they feel they need to do. 

“Bill is out of town and I’ve been a wreck.”

Sometimes, they say this in front of me, without realizing. I must be a wreck all the time. If they did realize, they would probably think I am a wreck all of the time. 

I am not a wreck all the time. I am not a wreck anytime, because I can’t afford to be. If I am a wreck, it is when all of the above is completed, everyone else is dreaming about the fabulous days they had, and I collapse on the couch.

The other day, I heard a new concern. “Bill is out of town, and I am really glad I have the dog.”

Huh?

Does the dog mow the lawn? Wear a suit? Buy anniversary gifts?

“When he’s not home, she sleeps by the door.” 

Being the only adult in the house, I had forgotten that male adults can provide a feeling of safety for females and children. Well, certain male adults. Should I be scared, then, every night? Should my daughters be fearful every night? Should we think we are sitting ducks if someone should intrude? Our dog is deaf and blind. Are we crazy, living this way? We are a police action waiting to happen.

We live in a safe community. We have an alarm. We are very careful about the things you need to be careful about.  I am confident that I, as the sole adult in the house, could handle any incident as well as a person with bigger pectorals. It is not a choice to think otherwise. It is not a choice to think otherwise about this, or anything else, in the house or out. 

When I was living alone in New York in the late 80s, someone robbed my apartment when I was gone for the weekend. I came home to find my stereo and jewelry missing. Immediately, I called the police, my parents and my friend Stephen. Feeling afraid, I locked up the apartment and slept at Stephen’s. My parents came into town the next day and we outfitted the doors and windows with all sorts of contraptions. When the armor was in place, I assumed we would hop in the car and head up to Westchester, have some Chinese, play a little Monopoly. I’d take the train back in the morning. But my father told me I wasn’t going. He told me I was staying put, like Houdini in a box. Did I think I was going to run home every time something bad happened? Well, kind of.

I woke up the next day unscathed, and the day after that, too. No one broke in again. No one could, it was like Alcatraz on 71st Street. 

When I was married, I don’t recall feeling any more or less safe than I do now. I used to check all those doors and windows each night before going to bed, too, and turn on the alarm. It is not good to feel at risk in your own home. I felt bad for the woman and her dog.