Tart

Nathan Leslie

It all started when I was pinching the tarts. I say “pinching,” since when you have the dough tucked in the muffin tin, and the apples are crimped under the fold it’s only a matter of squeezing or pinching the top window closed. It’s nothing a pastry chef down at Wintergreen’s would ever do, but then again if I had to handle food all day, I wouldn’t want to eat. And I like to eat.

So, as I said, I was pinching the tarts closed in the tins, listening to an old Johnny Cash record when this whole flood of sensations hit me all at once. It wasn’t anything physical at all, but I still had to sit down. That was the force behind it.

I was sitting at the table, the muffin tins just resting on the counter where I lay the newspapers to keep the flour from pasting in the crack between the counter and the sink like it always does. But I literally couldn’t get up. I simply couldn’t seem to tell my body to stand, even though I needed to get the tarts in the oven before they got soggy, before the ones I did pinch closed open up again. I mean, this was what I was thinking about—those tarts. I leaned back in the chair until I could hear it strain and creak, and then I let out a deep sigh, and I closed my eyes for a long while.

It went like this: though I made the dough a thousand times, this time I began thinking about my mother. As a little girl, tarts were one of the first things she taught me to make. Actually, tarts were second. Apple pie was the first. I could easily laugh at that one, since apple pies are supposed to be one of those ultimate American symbols.

What would happen was about once a month my mother would sit me down at the big yellow Formica kitchen table and tell me we’re going to make something nice for your father tonight, and how would you like to learn a little cooking along the way? At first I would rather talk to my puppets, or climb trees, or ride my bike to Clara’s house and see if she wanted to go down to the lake with me to throw stones into the cattails. But once my mother got me slicing apples and mixing sugar and cinnamon in them, and piling them into dough, and watching the crust brown in the oven with my initials carved in the dough on top to make my daddy smile when he came from work, that was it, I was hooked. My mother always seemed to be the happiest when she was making something. I don’t know if it was the food, or being with me, or what, but the thing of it was, she just beamed. And if I could help my mother’s state, I was all for it.

The tarts always came about as leftovers. My mother would usually make enough dough for three pies, but use the scraps of the last one to make tarts. This was even better than the pie making, because it used up the creative side. She’s the one that showed me how to pinch the tarts up, how to lay them, all that. And this is what I was thinking on before I had to sit. I was thinking that even in the beginning she showed me how to use the leftovers, how to conserve what you have, because like she used to say, “None of us have unlimited anything, especially energy.” So it wasn’t just about conserving food, but also about conserving what you had in the world, and that was the most important part in the long run.

After we were finished, and the pies and the tarts were in the oven she’d thank me, and let me lick the stirring spoon, and I would. Then the tarts would come out crisp and feathery brown, and we’d sit down and eat a few together, and bite right into the cinnamon juices. I loved the taste of tarts, and especially the ones that I helped with, especially when the apples were not too crisp, and not too soggy, and the juice of the cooked apples dribbled down my chin when I bit into the crust. I’d watch her face when she ate the ones I made, and I always held my breath to catch her reaction at that moment.

Cooking became something for us to share, a kind of bonding. My mother was a help since she was always slow and patient at showing me how to make dishes, and I wanted everything to come out just the way she taught me. Anything other than perfect wouldn’t do. On the positive side, I remember she praised my gingersnaps for days. She’d tell everyone she knew that her daughter made the best gingersnaps she’d ever tasted. But she taught me how to make chocolate cake (I was usually on dessert duty at first). I must have misread the ingredients because the cake came out gooey and barely edible as far as I could see. My mother held my head in her hands and told me not to worry about it, that it looked good, that it would taste good, and that I shouldn’t let it get to me. She’d say “Cooking is part just letting things be.” I didn’t get this right away.

My mother also didn’t want to waste food, and she had me do the icing anyway, even though I shook my head and said it would taste terrible. I hardly ate anything during dinner; I was holding back my tears the whole time. And then when I had to bring the cake out to my father and watch him eat a slice of it, I felt like I might lose it any moment. I just was horrified at the thought of disappointing him. But I took what my mom called a “no thank you” slice, and I nibbled on a corner of it. When I lifted my eyes, my father beamed at both of us, and loosened his tie. “This is something. You both did a wonderful job as always,” he said. “This cake is a treat.”

I couldn’t believe it. He actually liked it. But I also learned a lesson watching him eat that cake. If he thought it was too mushy, he didn’t say a thing, just kept on eating. My father wasn’t a liar: he would tell you if he didn’t like something. He finished the slice of cake in less than two minutes, pressing his fingers into the crumbs on his plate and licking them clean. When I was helping my mother clean up afterwards she turned to me and whispered: “Jenna, for most people, food is food. The imperfect parts will only stand out to the cook. That’s how it is.”

Time can twist your mind all into a circle, ’cause all these thoughts flooded to me in about three seconds. Then others.

These early cooking lessons taught me the basics, that’s for sure. Things I learned then I take as old hat now. But if my mother hadn’t shown me I might never know. Sometimes, I think this is why I cook, and why I tried so hard to get Angie some flour under her nails as well: food is my way of carrying on a tradition going way back before my mother to ancestors at the brink of our time on this continent. When I have dough in my hands they feel physically linked with my mother, and to those who came before her.

But what I picked up in pinching the tarts was the trying-too-hard-to-impress part. There I was, holding my mother’s hand through that dough, conserving the apple and dough like she taught, and the impression side of things is somehow what came out. Why did I try so hard so often? Why was I so concerned with what she thought, what he thought? Why did I beat myself up over nothing? What was going on in my mind when I was following those recipes for her?

* * *

I’ve moved on from desserts and fretting about my mother. In fact, I rarely, if ever, think about these old memories, and I can’t remember the last time I looked through old photograph albums, for instance. But the tarts did a number on me. Michael, my husband, like so many people these days, works too much. He manages a chain restaurant down at the new mall, and has been in similar positions at various restaurants for as long as we’ve been married. He mostly likes the work, enjoys keeping everything under wraps, everything controlled to some degree. As he says, it’s not about pleasing folks, but pleasing himself by pleasing them, making an experience out of the meal and having that reflect back upon him in the end. Some of our neighbors think Michael is self-absorbed, overly concerned with his own trials and tribulations (he always has several of these to relate). There might be some truth to that, but the bigger issue is that clenched heart.

After Angie was born, I was a house mom for years, and financially speaking we were on the poorer side of things. The restaurant chain screws everybody, but nobody more than Michael. He usually puts in sixty, seventy hours a week, and to make mid-thirties for that amount of work is a disgrace to the company. But we didn’t want to be the kind of parents to ignore our child for money, just to be too tired to enjoy either the child or the money. So I stayed home, with the understanding that I would also be in charge of the housework and cooking, since it was possible that Michael would have to work another job for diapers and baby food. And for a few years he would bartend at Finnegan’s on Saturday nights for just this reason. For one-fifty a night he said it was worth the sacrifice.

The problems arose when I began to detect resentment from Michael’s end. It wasn’t anything overt or extensive by any means, but on his off-days he would hole himself in his study, watch television, or just sit in the recliner drinking a beer. Sometimes I’d ask him if he wanted to go to the park with Angie and goof around with the swing set and monkey bars. He’d shoot me a look that said it all: On my day off? Are you crazy? Worse: he didn’t want to be touched. When he wasn’t working, he wanted a drink and solitude.

So when Angie was in first grade, I decided to work myself. My mother thought this whole path was a mistake, that I should continue to do what I do best—mother Angie through thick and thin, and do right by Michael where I could. This is what she did for us, and this is what she thought the clearest and strongest course of action should be for a woman and a mother. But Michael and I had grown apart in the years since Angie was born. The way I saw it I wouldn’t have a husband to do right by if I didn’t try harder to balance out the workload in his eyes.

This was a running conversation:

“Michael, how can I help raise Angie when I upset you by staying home? Do you think I’m getting off easy?”

He would sigh, and shift his weight on the sofa, or look away nervously as if there were a hundred things he’d rather be doing than hashing out a conflict for the fiftieth time.

“No,” he’d say.

“No what, Michael?” I would try to approach those discussions gingerly, careful not to come across as a nag, or as if I was trying to get back at him in some way. But he was so understated, passive-aggressive.

“You’re not getting off easy,” he’d say. “You don’t have to work. We can get by without that.”

This was his way of saying I was doing an adequate job as is, when in fact he would rarely if ever thank me for making dinner, or ask me if Angie is doing all right, or if I needed help.

“When I’m not working, I just don’t want to do anything, that’s all. I need my down time,” he’d say. His tone made him seem like a prima donna.

Ultimately I decided to go back to work anyway; and Michael listened when I presented the issue in terms he could tap into: money. He did admit that it would be nice to save a few bucks rather than blow everything month to month. We were both in our late twenties then and I was starting to worry about our future, so he bought it. Initially he offered to hire me at the restaurant, but I decided against that. If he wanted his space without my presence at the restaurant, it would only be worse if I were there. Instead, I found a job shelving books for the library. Just me and a stack of books. It doesn’t come much more peaceful than that.

* * *

From the outset I had a knot in my stomach about the trip. For weeks we had been getting ready for it, and finally we were on our way into the hills. It took hours of highway driving to get there, and then it was just a matter of weaving up into higher elevation. Only it started raining. It wasn’t a small drizzle; this was a full-blown rainstorm, and as the water sloshed more violently against our car and the visibility got worse, Michael had to slow the car down to twenty miles an hour to see the lanes. My legs became tense, and my feet were pressed against the car as if I had brakes on my side as well. This is with the windshield wipers whipping frantically. Then it rained harder. It didn’t seem possible, but the wind thrashed even more violently and the windshield was a stream of water at this point. I felt like I was under a waterfall; Michael had to pull over.

Still, Angie was calm and collected. She was six at the time, with a healthy sense of pleasure despite her sometimes-frightened nature (inherited from me, I’m sure). Before the rain hit, she colored in her coloring book, gazing from the window when I pointed something out to her and holding her stuffed pony in her lap for comfort. When the rain hit, Angie calmly closed her coloring book and leaned forward in her seat to see. But she didn’t shudder or clench her eyes closed when the road became a blur. Instead, when I turned around to look at her, she had her nose pressed to the passenger side window, trying to see the havoc that the water wreaked upon the landscape—the mud sliding down the embankments, the tree limbs limp and waterlogged, the mist congealing in the ditches and valleys as we passed by. When Michael decided the pounding rain created too much of a danger, Angie smiled and said that she was glad we were on vacation since how often has she ever seen anything like that before? Angie is as sweet and understanding now as she was then; she has always been a source of comfort for me.

As the rain slashed against our car and pounded the roof with a deafening stream of water, Michael leaned his seat back and closed his eyes. I sat straight and forward, and watched the water pour down the windshield, and watched the water angle its way through the branches of the birch trees to the trunks themselves, dousing the bark and darkening it until the trees seemed to become a different species altogether. For a moment I realized I was watching in the way Angie watched, and when I turned around to see my daughter, she was watching me as if she already knew. Her eyes seemed to be my eyes, and her mouth seemed to be my mouth. For a moment it seemed Angie truly was an extension of me, a soul linked to mine.

Then the rain slowed, and the trees dropped their erratic drops on us, and Michael raised his chair with a jolt, and sighed, and turned the ignition. The moment was gone. Michael and I were back to a simmering level of conflict though I wasn’t sure at any moment what it was exactly about. For some reason the short rain delay didn’t seem to help Michael though. He actually seemed more filled with tension than before, and he continued sighing and glowering. After a few minutes I asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he propped his chin in his left hand and looked out the driver’s side window away from me. His right hand tightened on the steering wheel. I took my glasses off and rubbed the indentations on my nose, and I told him to relax and I placed my hand on his knee and rubbed my palm along it. For a moment he placed his hand on top of mine, and said he was sorry, and that he would relax, but then a logging truck pulled in front of him, and he had to downshift, and I could see his jaw muscles clenching. He lifted my hand, and placed it in my lap.

“Jenna, I’m trying to get us there on time,” he said.

“It’s OK. You don’t have to worry about it.”

He snapped his head to me, and then jerked it up to look in the rearview, and he said he doesn’t have to, but that he’s trying to give us a good vacation and that it takes an effort to do this.

“It doesn’t just happen, OK?”

“OK,” I said.

For a moment I looked back at Angie, and she seemed to be ignoring me now, looking past the scene in the car. Later in life this would still be her strategy—Angie had the ability to just withdraw from her surroundings. I didn’t say anything to her, or to Michael for the rest of the drive up. It was only when we pulled into the actual park that I smiled at Michael and patted his back, and told him he did a good job. He parked the car in the lot near registration. When I stepped out of the car, the sun filtered through the haze like a trance. The cluster of cabins sat by the lake, but all I could focus on was the glitter and the glare from the lake. Michael pulled a baseball cap on and began trudging toward the “Welcome” sign behind the lead cabin, and Angie popped out of the car and walked about twenty feet toward the lake. But Michael caught her out of the corner of his eye and immediately shouted, “Get her away from the lake, would you? Get her away from there! She can’t be near that without a lifejacket.” I waved to Angie, and she pulled at her hair and walked back to me. I leaned against the car and watched her. Then he continued up the gravel path away from me.

* * *

It wasn’t the worst vacation in the world, but it certainly wasn’t enjoyable either, and for some reason it stands out to me now as a turning point in my life, though it didn’t at the time. During the entire trip Michael was much more uptight and tense than he ever had been in one condensed period. And the drive up was just the beginning, really. In fact, the vacation was littered with small conflicts over Angie. Once he disagreed with the concept of Angie eating potato chips—too unhealthy for small children. “She’s not exactly small,” I said. We also got in a row about how much mosquito repellant Angie should wear at night. There was a big scene at the lakefront when Michael rented a speedboat and wanted me to strap Angie in a safety seat. I thought this was more dangerous than having nothing at all, not to mention constricting to Angie’s first real boat trip (aside from a lazy canoe trip the summer before, which in my mind didn’t count). I guess he didn’t really want to go boating anyway.

But the chief eruption revolved around the larger schedule of the trip. Michael wanted to hit all the major mountain trails in the park at least part of the way, and I thought it was too much and said so. Poor Angie had to witness most of this up-close-and-personal. We were at a picnic table near our cabin eating lunch when Michael briskly unfolded the park map as if he was on a mission.

“We can hit Green Mountain today, and then tomorrow go to Mount Toliver, and maybe also Reems Mountain while we are up there,” he said. “Those are supposed to be two of the most impressive peaks in the whole park. We have to see them. Then the next day I’d like to hit some of the smaller mountains down in the southern…”

At this point I cut him off. Michael was always such a planner, but this was excessive even for him. I almost think he liked making the itinerary more than enjoying the vacation itself. But in my view he was contradicting the intense safety paranoia he had just defended.

“Michael,” I said. “We can’t possibly do all of that. Even if Angie physically could take it, it’s way too regimented. I don’t want to spend the entire trip following some strict schedule. It’s supposed to be a vacation, Michael. You know, relax.”

He glared at me as if to say that I had my chance to put forth my say on this before we left for the trip, before he had his heart set on what he scheduled. And it was true: we did sit down at the kitchen table and go over the trip in general, but nothing was set; I was just happy about the idea of getting away. I always forgot how severe he could be. Angie sat at the table, picking at her fingernails.

“Do you want to actually see this park, Jenna? Or do you just want to sit around and watch the lake? I mean we came up—”

I didn’t want Angie caught in between us. I shook my head at her fingers and cut him off.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”

“Jesus,” he said, and chucked the crust of his sandwich against the nearby pine tree. “Why did we even come up here then? We could just sit next to the bathtub at home.”

“Frankly, that sounds somewhat relaxing compared to this,” I said.

Once again Angie seemed to be able to ignore us. Instead of getting caught up in the conversation, she looked out over the lake, where three loons floated near the solitary island close to the shore. One by one they dove under the waves. But I only glimpsed the end of this once Angie tugged at my shirt and pointed it out. Michael coughed and looked away, gripping the edge of the table. Angie whispered in my ear that she wanted to go sit on the cabin porch so she could see the loons, and I said that was fine as long as she stayed where I could see her. She hopped off a hundred yards down the lakefront, and Michael turned his head toward the lake and asked what she just said.

“Michael, she just wanted to go to the cabin. Can you blame her?” He popped a few carrot sticks in his mouth, as if this question was arrogant or redundant.

“I’m not the one who is trying to destroy my vacation plans,” he said.

“Your vacation plans,” I said. “Look, let’s just settle down and enjoy our time here, can we?”

And then we sat in silence. I remember it was a beautiful balmy day, and the air was filled with that fragrant flowery smell of early summer. But Angie was the only one who seemed to be enjoying the beauty around us. When I watched the leaves gently whip in the wind, I looked right through them. I was thinking of a way out. I packed the trash into a plastic bag, and headed back to the cabin where Angie sat on the porch swinging her legs. I didn’t see Michael for the rest of that day and honestly it was one of the most relaxing times of the trip. Angie and I were sitting by the fire roasting marshmallows as usual when he slumped onto the rock next to me, and draped his arm over my shoulder, and he drank a beer and told us about Green Mountain. Somehow the tightness went out of the trip after that; maybe Michael just needed to be on his own.

* * *

But as far as our relationship was concerned, Michael and I were stuck. I started to worry about it when I noticed that he stopped taking me on actual dates. Before we married he always said he never wanted to become one of those couples that halted the romance as soon as the wedding bells stopped ringing. But for us it was just a delayed erosion. As I said, he was never home. And when he was home, he was exhausted, or said he was. Either way, we barely spent time in the same room. I had to figure out how to make do on my own. Aside from working a bit on my own, I spent my time with Angie, and taught her how to cook and garden. Motherhood and food were my sanctuaries from the disappointment of my marriage. Maybe Michael resented that. This is the way it was.

But my body started feeling the physical effects of the stress, especially my stomach. I started suffering painful bouts of indigestion, and what Dr. Hellings called hyper-acidity. When I went to see him at first he told me that “the body runs like a car; you have to take it into the shop for a while.” He gave me boxes of sample pills that he said I should take daily. Then he gave me a list of foods to avoid—coffee, dairy (including ice cream), onions, booze, red meat, fatty foods. At first I thought Hellings was using his forced folksiness as a kind of hard sell. But then I realized that he meant it: to him the body was a machine, and not just metaphorically. His method of fixing it: reducing me to bread and water, maybe an occasional apple if I was lucky.

Three weeks later I was back in his office. My stomach still hurt almost every morning. It wasn’t ordinary indigestion. I could feel the stress leak into me and gnaw at my insides. After waiting over an hour past my scheduled appointment, the nurse led me into his office again. This time Dr. Hellings didn’t greet me with a jokey metaphor or anything of the sort. He scanned my medical history and we talked about the dietary cuts, and the lack of effectiveness there. He spoke of the chance that it might be an ulcer, or something more serious, and he wanted to run more tests. But then he closed the folder and placed it on his lap, dramatically, as if he was about to proclaim my death sentence.

“Have you thought about going to therapy at all?” He asked.

“What does therapy have to do with anything? I thought the body is like a car.”

“It’s more or less true,” he said. “But with digestive problems, sometimes the problem is actually related to stress, or other related psychological trauma. You know, it’s just a thought.”

“What do you mean ‘trauma’? What trauma?”

Afterwards the nurse took some blood and we scheduled a time for me to return for further tests. I went along. But I knew I wasn’t coming back. As I walked out of his office, I thought two things: First, that my body is not a means of mechanical transportation. And second, that there has to be a better way.

* * *

It turns out that right next to library there was an herbal medicine store. I didn’t really process it early on because I just figured that herbal medicine was for hippies and weirdos, and I didn’t pay attention to it at all. But once I decided I was finished with Dr. Hellings, I thought there’s no harm walking in the store. So I pulled into the lot at about three thirty in the afternoon, half an hour before my shift. The store was called Herbal Heaven, set back from the main highway in this little strip mall with a run-down convenience store, a waterbed place that always seemed empty, and a neglected coffee shop with ratty tables that seemed straight out of 1978. It was difficult to even see the strip mall from the road, since it was shrouded by trees and the large library building. But nevertheless, almost all of the cars in the small lot were parked directly in front of the herbal store.

When I opened the door some sort of electronic chime bell went off, and the four people at the counter turned to look at me as if they knew I was coming. I almost left right then; the whole thing just felt too cultish and strange right away. But then the woman behind the counter peered around the line of customers, and waved to me casually, and said she’d be right with me. There was something low-key and soothing about that, and I decided to look around. It was a small store, and somewhat cluttered with wide honey-tinted bookshelves holding mortar and pestle sets, and already-filled dried herb sets, and herb racks for the kitchen, and books on using herbs regularly, and up front a glass counter containing miniature barrels of dried herbs, and a refrigerated section of fresh herbs—basil, tarragon, thyme, mint, and the like. The customers asked for slippery elm bark, lemon balm, pasque favor, echinacea, and dandelion as if they were in a bakery queued up for cookies and donuts. The woman behind the counter with a nametag reading Maryanne greeted each customer by name, and scooped the herbs, and opened plastic bags, and weighed the contents on a scale. Then she twisted the baggies closed with red or purple yarn and took the customer’s money. After glancing at the knickknacks in the rear of the store, I decided to get in line with the rest.

When it was my turn, Maryanne looked at me with her warm and open face, and said she’d never seen me before, and that she should know since most of their customers are regulars. At that moment I thought that this is a woman who knows the weight that every moment and gesture can carry in life.

“Well, I’ve never been here, and I’ve never been to a herb shop at all, so I don’t know where to begin. I do cook a lot, but I usually get my herbs from the grocery store, you know.”

“Let me ask you a question. Are you looking for a solution?”

“What do you mean, ‘solution’?”

“I mean medical. Do you have a physical problem at all?”

“Yes,” I said. And I told her the whole story. Luckily at this point there was only one other customer in the back of the store flipping through one of the herb books. Maryanne listened and shook her head the whole way through, as if she’d heard it a thousand times before, but the way she did it, she never made me feel as if I was misguided or ignorant. Just unlucky. She handed me one of her cards with her name emblazoned diagonally across the face of it in orange.

“Feel free to give me a call at any point. I’m not a doctor but I know how to help people with lots of things,” she said. “As far as your condition, I’d get some mint, some ginger, some nice chamomile tea, and some rosemary. Garlic is a good all-purpose help,” she said. “But don’t discount stressors, of course. You have to cut those back no matter what.”

“What counts as a stressor these days?” I asked.

“I think of it as anything that quickens your breath. But that’s broad.”

That afternoon Maryanne and I ended up talking for nearly half an hour at the counter, and I ended up late for work. She told me she was a stockbroker who got fed up with the acquisitiveness of the business culture and dropped out for less anxious waters. I told her about the basics of Michael, and my return to work, and my general state of mind. “I’m fragile; I can’t concentrate,” I told her; these were thoughts I hadn’t verbalized to barely anyone. It was one of those beginnings that was memorable enough to launch a friendship; sometimes that is all it takes—a chance encounter. By the end of the conversation we exchanged numbers, and planned on grabbing lunch at one of the cafes nearby when we both worked.

The next day Maryanne called me up and we arranged to meet the following Thursday. We talked on the phone for an additional hour, mostly about her work frustrations and the struggle slowing down her mind. It was a conversation where I did a lot of listening, but I’m a good listener. I didn’t mind. Then she realized that she had talked for about forty minutes with only my brief interruptions as a counter. And she did what most people would do in a similar situation: she apologized. However, something in her voice transcended the moment. I have never quite had this sensation before, but I know I’m not mistaken: it seemed as if on the phone Maryanne was almost trying to physically reach me with her voice. Michael was at work, of course.

* * *

When Thursday rolled around, I had worked Maryanne in my mind to such a level of curiosity that it was almost difficult to not get excited by the prospect of our encounter. I even took my lunch hour early, so that I was sure I wouldn’t miss her. Sitting alone in the booth I had time to think, and I ended up remembering this bearded man who my mother used to visit from time to time just for peanut butter. He ran a health food store in town and my mother thought most of the food looked terrible (she never went for tofu, for instance), but that their peanut butter was a considerable improvement upon the store-bought brands. So sometimes she took me there, maybe about once a season.

That store was also tucked away, as if the owner was embarrassed about it. The time I remember the most distinctly, the health food store owner had a wooden bowl of some kind of cereal-raisin-nut mix, and he was fishing handfuls of the mix out with both hands, and shoveling them down behind the counter. He was a skinny guy with a frizzy beard, and when my mother and I left the store with the peanut butter I asked her how old she thought he was. She twisted her face up in a little knot, and why I wanted to know that, and I told her because I couldn’t tell, and she told me that she couldn’t either but that it might be about thirty-five. I don’t know why this stuck out in my mind.

Then Maryanne plopped herself down on the other side of the booth, and I smiled, and she pulled her hair back with her hands and smiled back. She opened the menu and bent her head down to it, and I just watched her. She asked what I like to eat there, and I said I’d never been, and she said she hadn’t either.

“Are you, you know, hungry?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I am too,” she said.

“Are the remedies working out?” she asked.

“Better,” I said. “I mean, I’m trying to watch stressors as well. But my stomach is stronger. It feels stronger, at least.”

It was as if this was our first conversation and the others hadn’t happened. I thought perhaps Maryanne built the lunch up in her own mind as well, and we were both being too careful. Then I thought that she might have a sort of sexual interest in me. But I didn’t pick this up from her either of the previous times, and I thought it seemed unlikely. However, as soon as I was about to leap to the next possibility, she dramatically clapped the menu closed and said we should both order omelets, that it just felt like that kind of day, and that she was getting the feta and spinach omelet.

“What do you want?” she asked.

And from that moment we were fast friends.

Rather than widen my home-life tension, my friendship with Maryanne ended up saving my relationship with Michael, or at least temporarily solving some of the problems we had at the time. And it happened so invisibly that I barely noticed the change occurring, but I’m certain that’s what she did. For starters, Maryanne was great with Angie, and Angie fell in love with her from the beginning. In the beginning Maryanne would come over to our house and she would give Angie advice on weeding the garden, or on taking care of Angie’s tomato plants, and she’d help us cook dinner, and take a walk with us afterwards if Michael wasn’t home yet. She was the surrogate sister that Angie never had, and it kept my relationship with my daughter fresh, since Angie suddenly had a new venue for her ideas, and someone to help her flesh them out aside from me (for me the pressure was off).

Even Michael took to Maryanne, as if what was missing from our family was simply a fourth wheel. When Maryanne visited, Michael would be more sociable, more family-oriented, would want to impress her somehow. He didn’t even mind the herbal medicine talk, and in fact they could talk about the benefits the customers of his restaurants might gain from certain herbs that they used in various dishes. Though it never came to fruition, Michael wanted Maryanne to help him develop an insert detailing this for each dish. In the end though he was still swamped.

And the three of us loved cooking for him, and for all of us. Angie learned by watching and helping, and over the years she became as good at cooking as either Maryanne or I. It got to the point where we made a list of dishes that I’d never made, and then slowly we checked them off: crab and cucumber rolls, gravlax, Liptauer cheese, blanquette of veal, zucchini pancakes, carrot torte, andama bread, Swiss fondue, paella, kedgeree, lobster thermidor, stuffed snapper, cioppino, scotch broth, vichyssoise, Queen Victoria Soup, tomato aspic, chiffon cake, mincemeat pie, lyonnoise potatoes, cream of chestnut soup, halibut Creole.

Somehow Maryanne’s sudden presence in our life at least once or twice a week led me even more down a path I explored earlier with Angie: food. I had her help me garden for a few years, and just like my mother taught me how to cook first with desserts, I had done the same with Angie (though I used pumpkin pie as her first—the slop of the pie appealed to her). But before Maryanne it was erratic, and I didn’t make an issue out of it. But with Maryanne, my stomach pains lifted, and Angie became more and more interested in making stew, baking bread, chopping vegetables. The infusion of new energy inspired me to pass the lessons of food onto my daughter, as it should be.

As I was pinching the tarts it came to me. My mother gave me such a luminous childhood, I thought, that everything from there on out could only be downhill. With my fingers caked in dough I realized that without becoming conscious of it, I had been living a nostalgic life ever since, that I had never truly mourned for my mother’s death. My memories of this restricted me from the flow of the present. All those days in the kitchen with my mother, beams of sunshine tracing across the far wall. The smells of our creations floating in the space we breathed, and soaking into our clothes. The shortening and butter on my shirt. The sharp clicking of her knife against the cutting board. This was what I loved, and what I lost, and what I couldn’t have any longer.

At least in the same form.

In a sense I fell in love with my mother in the same way that I fell in love with Michael, a rush of impulse into something deep and pervasive as an ocean. I remember opening her kitchen drawers and finding each piece of exotic equipment: the potato masher, the wire whisk, the skimmer, a pastry brush, a trussing needle, a zester, a melon baller, a pastry cutter, custard cups. I wanted to know what each instrument did, to be able to be fluent with each one.

And this is what happened. But before the ocean lapped over me, the plates shifted.

I sat down at the table and let this memory wash over me. Then I let it drain from me, so that I could see myself for who I am. It was a singular moment. I knew I could never discover these things again in exactly the same way, so I didn’t mind lingering. I listened to the clock tick, and the heater hum, and I sat stiff and immobile.

But as the horizon opened, I felt a sense of relief, and felt that I was on new soil for the first time. My own. Slowly I stood, wobbly as a fresh fawn padding her way through spring shoots.


This story comes from a collection of stories I’m working on (Mothers) where each story revolves around or is inspired in some way by a mother character. This story was inspired by my own mother in some ways, and her own divorce. After several years of writing very masculine stories, I have been interested in the challenge of exploring female characters of recent. It has been a very worthwhile experience.