Post #87: Come to the Table

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There is never ever a plan.  But does it matter?

A cavernous, empty pot sits on the stove, it’s gaping mouth almost crying out to be filled.   But, ah, with what? A flash of the knife,  a bloom of blue flame and suddenly it begins!  I’ve a sizzling swirl of mirepoix, fancy French for plain old onions and carrots and celery. A spirited rummage through the cupboard:  Kale or cabbage?   Crushed tomatoes or cubed potatoes?  Barley or farro or pasta or rice?  Zucchini or beans or chicken or beef?   A dollop of hot sauce or sprinkle of cheese? It matters not. No matter what, no matter how, I will stir up my pot to make, as the Mock Turtle blissfully intones, “Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!”

The dreamy scent wafts through the kitchen, curls around the hallway, up the stairs and down. Oh please, let them fly and float through the air to me like the etherial lovers from a Chagall!

I promise there will be enough for everyone.  The door opens.

***

My Great Grandma Rachel Leah, 1962

She comes down the stairs sideways oh so slowly, clutching the railing with both hands, her face contorted with the effort.  It’s so hard for her to walk but she is insistent and determined she will do this, step by laborious step.  Then finally a sigh and a settle into her chair. No one can keep her away.  No one would.  She sees me and her body relaxes, her arms unfurl.  In a moment I am relaxing, melting  into her lap.  As she strokes my hair I can feel the knots in her fingers.   I twist to see her face. She is smiling. Her eyes are the simply softest brown.

***

My Little Gram, 1971

Not a whisper, not a word! We know to tiptoe, how to pull the door  shut with only the tiniest woosh and never a slam.  It’s just us, the early risers!  We creep into the car and drive stealthy, squinting into the early morning sunshine.  We are on a dual mission, to find both the Sunday papers and the bags of hot bagels.  Neither of us knows which we love more, to eat or to read. Don’t make us choose!

***

My Grandpa Lou, 1960

He is tired.  He works so very hard. And it’s been such a long day.  Even so still he walks through the door with the confident  stride of a natural athlete.  Although his dark curls are receding back from his forehead, his jaw is still so strong, his gaze direct and searching.  Before he has his dinner, before he even takes off his coat, he digs into his pockets and pulls up fistfuls of coins: Roosevelt dimes,  Indian Head nickels, Lincoln pennies, some of them still made of World War II steel.  The coins are for me. Every night my Grandpa Lou showers his pocket change into my bank for my future.

***

My Bubbe Slava, 1961

Adored by my Dad, your grandson.  Adored by my Mom, his young wife.  It was said you were beloved by everyone who ever knew you.  So missed by them, and so too then,  by me.

***

My Grandma and Papa, 1968

Chest puffed out proudly, hands on hips, the Superman of Lauder Avenue rises from his chair to greet us.  Calm and controlled, the master of the living room.  Clothes perfectly pressed. A clatter from the kitchen and he is joined by my grandmother, perspiring and wrinkled and aproned, hair flyaway.  He bestows a regal kiss on each of our foreheads. She squeezes us into the tightest of hugs. At dinner he sits at the head of the table and waits to be served. At dinner, she is always on her feet and is constantly serving. And yet when she presents him with his plate, meat, vegetables, potatoes just so, their eyes lock, just for a moment. Did you catch it? They love each other so.

***

My Aunt Bess and My Aunt Rose and My Cousin Marty, 1972

Sit with us, talk with us, be with us! Around the table, around the living room, glance to glance, phrase to phrase, heart to heart. Around and around we are forever warmed.  We never get our fill.

***

My In-Laws, Lillian and David, 1988

It is the most elegant of places, delicate chandeliers giving off a muted, almost viscous light, the silverware arrayed with the precision of a marching band,  flanking a platter of the purest white. Yet in this impressive place I am the one who is meant to impress. You sit beside me eagerly,  your words reaching out yearningly across the table to the almost impassive couple across from us. I feel as if they only have eyes for you, their boy. While my smile is calm my hands are not,  as under the table I am twisting my napkin into a harsh knotty rope. But when I get up for a moment to leave the table, I take a quick glance back.  Your father is grinning.  He gives you two thumbs up. And satisfied,  your mother smiles and nods in agreement.

***

Come back to us, please, come sit at the table!  Of course there is room.  Can you see, can you smell, I have made the soup?   You’ll know us, here are my sisters, one with armloads of daffodils, the other holding aloft a tray of the most exquisite cakes.  Our husbands, strong and kind and good are here with us, as well as all of our funny, kind and wonderful sons and daughters, nephews and nieces.  At the head of the table is our Mother, ever solicitous, chooser of the most perfect presents.  Dad, still the clever jokester, remains at her side.

Waiting expectantly too are  Shayna and Sam, Rorschach and Roscoe, Charlotte and Tina, dearest Golda, sweet Cody and ever so intelligent Jess.  Overseeing it all of course is Big Nick, large, orange and masterfully in charge. They do not wait for scraps.  As befits all of the beloved, full plates for all.

To all those we love, to all we so miss. You are cherished. Come try the soup. Come to the table. There is, and always will be, a place set  for you.

 

Photo: My Little Gram, Ann Venitsky Chudler

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“Your One Wild and Precious Life”

FullSizeRender (3)It was really no big deal. Except it was. One heavy, sluggish afternoon I was at home. Alone in the empty kitchen. Alone in the house. Alone. Like an aproned conductor poised on the podium I really knew this melody to my very soul, I’ve played it so many times before. I pulled ingredients from the cupboards, pots and pans from the shelves. Oh please! I could do this with my eyes closed. But I didn’t. When I was finished things were different. There was a plate full of cookies. But not the usual blondie squares. Not the standard oatmeal chocolate chip. Not the ubiquitous rice crispie treats.   I had made poppy seed cookies. No one’s favorite. Except mine.

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Before I was born my Great-grandmother Rachel Leah made taiglach, hot honeyed pastry mounded into tiny hills, my mother’s memory so powerful that decades later even I could taste the sweetness on my tongue.

***

With the pride and bearing of a queen, my Grandma “Anne with an e” presided over her kingdom. Her edible coffers emptied upon the white tablecloth and spread before us with the glory of a cornucopia, should a cornucopia be filled with platters of sliced meats and bowls of whipped potatoes. At the end we were awarded tins crammed full of Mandelbrot. Chocolate chip for us. Walnut for her boy, my Dad.

***

“It’s nothing,” my little Gram demurred, “it’s not even baking really!” but still she would casually toss ingredients up into to a bowl. Then with the coiled strength of a Billie Jean King backhand she would use her whisk to serve up perfect Lemon Meringue pies. Love all.

***

Every Sunday morning The Egg Master reverently unwrapped his iron skillet. Do you want your eggs scrambled or boiled, stuffed or shirred? Guaranteed delicious, guaranteed perfectly done, guaranteed done exactly the way he wants them for you.

Later he would pile everyone into the car for a long ride for big scoops of ice cream. We could never finish. And no matter the flavor, be it Bubble Gum or Butter Crunch or Blue Moon, The Egg Master would manfully lick down the excess, no complaints.

***

Tureens of soup from my mother, thick with vegetables and anchored with chunks of flanken bobbing like buoys in a thick pea green ocean. Endless bowls from a never-ending tureen of serve yourself. Full of warmth.

***

My husband is stretched like a long pull of salt-water taffy, all six feet of him. When we walk together he holds my hand and I am practically horizontal as I’m pulled along. Like Miss Clavel rushing to Madeleine, I run fast faster fastest to keep up, my legs in a whirl.

But when I walk by myself I can move more slowly, keep my feet right on the ground. Then there is time then to see. Then there is time to think. So I do.

As I walk, Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” floats into my mind. That last imploring line sticks fast: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I barely take a breath before I blurt out “anything I want!”

Then I realize that is precisely what I’m doing. That’s just what all the others did. Caring for those they love most. I hope too, like me, they learned to sometimes make their own kind of poppy seed cookies and care for themselves as well. Because the combination, mixed up all  together, is simply sublime.

 

 

THE SELF-SERVING SERVING WOMAN

When most people are questioned about past lives—assuming they believe that kind of thing – they always seem certain they are the living embodiment of someone powerful and famous like Cleopatra or Henry VIII or Catherine the Great. They really feel that mystical connection. No one is ever Joe Schmo in a past life.

To be fair I don’t exactly think of myself in a past life as Joe Schmo either. But I can never imagine myself as titan of the past. For me the fit is maybe a wild-haired, slightly disheveled serving woman.

This is probably because that’s pretty much what I find myself doing right now: compulsively making beds better left unmade, obsessively attempting to cook exotic specialty items like mejadra and shakshuka or anything lauded on Serious Eats. I have suddenly become an avid urban hunter of stray socks and crumpled t-shirts. It’s bizarre behavior for sure. The only thing that’s changed is that my boys, usually away at school, have been home this summer. I should be quietly blissful. But really. What is with me?

Here is the joke. They are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. During the rest of the year they live on their own. They absorbed so much Food Network from babyhood onward that for them cooking is virtually instinctive. As for laundry, they figured out my big secret a while ago: that it’s actually not that hard to stuff clothes into a machine and remember to return when the cycle is finished.

But they come home and there they are. The same but imperceptibly different. Sort of like a cubist Picasso, I can almost see them shifting from as many changing angles. I’ve always known them. I should know them. But I feel so uncertain. They’ve grown. They’ve changed. How idiotic of me. How could they not? I’m their mother and I feel shy as middle-schooler at the 7th grade mixer.

Is it any wonder then that I hide behind baskets of laundry and rush to make platters of food? Is it good? Do they like it? Is there anything else they need? I am slightly ridiculous. They are kind. They don’t ask or need to be waited on but they seem to know that I need to do this. To hide a little until I can get used to them. To try to get to know them again.

And I do want to get to know them again. But I know that as soon as I feel I do the perspective will shift, as will they, and then they’ll be off.   But I’ll try again. And again. Getting to know them over and over. It’s what has to happen. It’s what’s meant to happen. You’ve guessed the only constant. Loving them always.