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
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
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
“I’m not the one who is trying to destroy my vacation plans,” he
“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
“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
* * *
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 counts as a stressor these days?” I asked.
“I think of it as anything that quickens your breath. But that’s
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.
* * *
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
“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
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
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 Im 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.