Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Food, Memories and Travel Mashup
Okay. I promised myself when I started this blog on January 1st, 2018, that I was not ever going to censor myself. As an adult with lots of life experience, I should have known better than to make promises like those. Right now I’m waging an internal struggle about censorship regarding what I want to be expressing in this forum. I’m not ready to be done with that inner conversation. But the need to write is big. So instead, I’m going to write about one topic which might offend people but isn’t personal. At least not to me. I also have a few other items to share that are mostly neutral. So here goes.
I’ll start with food. I really like food. I like it just as much as anyone does, especially eating it. In fact, I’ve probably always eaten more than I should. I think that got started because my older brother and sister were colicky babies, fussy and cranky about what went in their bodies. I guess they kind of drove my parents nuts. By the time I came along, my brother was eight and my sister was almost six. For mom and dad the advent of me was like starting over. They were certainly more mature than the 20 year olds who found themselves up to their elbows in diapers. Apparently, I was a really easy baby. In the beginning I liked to eat and I liked to sleep. My mom told me she always worried that I might be dead because I slept a long time. She also confessed that when I didn’t want to drink as much as usual, she snipped the ends of the nipples off my bottles and just poured the milk down my throat. That confession came as an apology well into my adult life when she was sorry that I’d had weight struggles. She felt guilty. As I grew up I learned that there were rewards in cleaning your plate and being the easy to please kid. And as I said, I really liked food. I didn’t spend a lot of time cooking as a young kid but I watched my mom and grandmother a lot and when Michael and I started out together, I had a decent repertoire of dishes and was the primary chef of our household.
But Michael really liked food too and by the time we’d been together about 20 years, he’d turned himself into a vegetable and herb gardener, a canner and a recipe fiend. He wanted to learn to make the foods he loved from our favorite restaurants, like deep dish Chicago pizza and Greek saganaki. He loved grilling and had all these special tools for doing vegetables and fish and even a massive grill for multiple slabs of ribs. As time went by, I did most of our holiday celebration cooking and he took over daily meals. Truly delightful. His meals were tasty and big on beautiful presentation. It worked for us.
When he got cancer, especially during his worst treatment times, that lifestyle changed. I was back in the kitchen, scrambling for recipes and tempting ideas and feeling like a failure when my concoctions were clearly subpar compared to his. I was grateful for the kindness of friends who started food trains to give us a hand. As he neared the end of his life, he’d sometimes just look at me and say, “what’re you going to eat when I die?”
I’d say Raisin Bran and cottage cheese with fruit and tell him not to worry about anything. And I meant it. I completely lost interest in cooking and made do with things that were more like snacks than meals or otherwise went out to eat or threw myself on my son-in-law’s mercy. My daughter’s not big into cooking either.
Before he died, Michael made an elaborate menu with both of our special recipes included. I could barely remember the last times I’d have mine. I guess you could’ve described him as a foodie although he’d never have been one of the people who posted photos of his dishes on social media. He really hated that. I don’t hate it but I’ve never quite understood the need to show what you ingest to all your friends. I admit that I did put up a video of a pot of bubbling matzo ball soup because I thought it was miraculous that I’d actually made it again after a long time. And I once posted a picture of two gorgeous orange sweet potato pies because they looked like art to me.
And then there was my snotty post of a Whopper just to be obnoxious. But mostly I didn’t do that kind of thing because I just didn’t see the relevance of it. Maybe some people are food voyeurs. Maybe others are fascinated by new recipes. As I said, I just like eating. But I’m going through a new thing right now. I realized that some of my fondest memories are of the special meals prepared by my mom and grandmother when the whole family came together to eat, sing, socialize and share. For so many years, well into my twenties, those traditions were the treasures that I stored away in my memory.
I took over a lot of the big family events when I was thirty and kept it going up to and including the darkest days of Michael’s sickness. But as soon as he died, I bailed on all of it. I just felt done. My mom stopped cooking after my dad died, too, perhaps setting the role model for me. I think she made a few efforts to do a couple of meals but as she aged, she lost her touch. I realize that whatever years are ahead of me are far fewer than they used to be. What homey memories will my grandchildren have of me? Fruit snacks and Twizzlers? My kids have memories of their favorite foods that I made which were ultimately eclipsed by the sheer volume of recipes that belonged to Michael. But they have some. And my eldest grandson, who I cared for during his first three years, still says he loved the special oatmeal I made him for breakfast, filled with applesauce and golden raisins. My whole matriarch thing has begun to feel like a big glob of words with no fragrant smells or tastes that will evoke the kinds of memories I have of the women in my life. I still smell my grandmother’s hallway as we all trundled up the stairs to gorge ourselves on her food. And my mom’s desserts which were, yes, literally to die for. So I figured I should pull myself off the couch and get it together before there’s no time left to establish those things for my crew. I think that starting out as an older parent and grandparent has some disadvantages but if I can swim every day, the least I can do is make a meal. So this week, I’m diving headfirst into good action.
Today I decided to try Michael’s marinade for salmon. I remember exactly what it looked like but being myself, a person who prefers to throw food together in the same non-scientific way that I garden, I took a wild stab at making what I thought was a good flavor blend and popped the salmon into it for a good soak. In Michael’s honor, I did wear his goggles that he always used when grating onions. I always thought he looked ridiculous but they worked very well. The fish was delicate and didn’t dry out. That was good enough for my son and me.
Tomorrow night, everyone is coming to my house for a traditional although late Rosh Hashanah dinner. I’ve included a photograph of my sweet and savory brisket which simmered fir hours tonight in my mother’s ancient pot. I remember her spicy baked chicken which cooked in there along with a fabulous fricassee that had little meatballs and chicken wings and a gravity so savory you sopped up all you could get on eggy, buttery challah bread. Makes me mouth water. My five year old grandson has tasted my matzo ball soup before and now says it’s his favorite. I’m making progress already. I don’t expect to go back into any full time cooking mode for the future. But at least they’ll remember me for some comfort food when I’m no longer here.
On to the next topic. Last week I spent about 15 hours driving in just a couple of days. My obsession with clouds on bright sunny days was a constant distraction. I also love looking at farm animals in the same way I used to when we were little, driving through Iowa to go visit the family in Chicago.
I had to stop to photograph the Mississippi. I’ve seen it so many times but it’s romantic for me because of books and history. I try not to think of what’s going on it biologically speaking.
And then there are bridges. I can’t get enough of a good bridge. And, oh, the wind farms. I always expect to see Imperial Walkers from Star Wars strolling in between each separate wind turbine. They are truly enormous. I saw lots of semitrailer trucks with room enough only for a single blade on their flatbeds. I do worry for the birds navigating those places.
Lastly, there’s my little phenology study of my yard. I think I’ve seen my last monarch this year, on September 30th. I still have plenty of painted ladies and sulphurs, but I’ll miss those monarchs. I hope those orange and black beauties with their white spots are safely headed to southern climes to go through their multiple breeding processes so they can return next year. Butterflies were my sustenance this summer and I had a great season.
Now I can hear bird chatter picking up in my garden. Some are migrating through and others are returning to spend the winter near all my feeders. They know a sucker when they see one. Oh, and I didn’t get a single tomato off my vines this year. All gotten by squirrels and rabbits. They’re getting my apples too.
Seasons coming and going. I can’t find a way to get Michael’s physical self to return so I’m making do with the mysterious strength of us that still permeates me and all my nature buddies which I’ve cultivated with great intensity. Great intensity is my thing, apparently. To close this random blog, I include a few photos of the architecture of my town. I’m still thinking about how to wrestle myself away from my censorship issue but at least I’ve found the way to release the deluge of words that gets backed up in my head when too many days go by without writing.