three princesses and the ice queen

Driving north to see my grandpa two weeks ago, on what happened to be his final day, I asked myself why I was leaving work on a Monday morning to do this. Yes, that is how meager my relationship with my grandfather was – work did seem as important, if not more, than seeing him in the hospital.

By that night I understood why I had made the trip.

I did not drive north to take my grandfather’s enormous and soft 86 year old hand. That moment, while important to me, was not the meaning of the journey.

The meaning for me was that afternoon, while he was getting a tube inserted to drain blood from cavities of his body that should not be full of blood. The hospital room was empty of his bed. His wife and their three daughters, who are my grandma, mom and aunts, sat in a circle around the space his bed should be.

Grandma was falling apart during these long days sitting by his side, not caring for herself and in poor health as well. Amongst other more serious issues, she had a cold.

One of the three blond sisters sitting to my left asked whether it was time for more cold pills.

My grandma has mastered the Ice Queen/WASP act and her walls of frost rose before the question was completed.

The implication of her brusque answer was: Do not make me take more cold pills. I am ready to throw myself on the pyre when he dies.

The subtext with my grandma gets so thick sometimes it can freeze you in your tracks, preventing you from saying the perfectly normal things one would to dispel an uncomfortable situation.

So you shuffle off.

But that afternoon I witnessed what I consider to be a miracle. Instead of silencing her daughters, my grandma’s frosty response unintentionally made them… laugh. We were sitting around waiting for doctors to drain enough fluid off her husband to maybe, if we were really lucky, keep him alive long enough to go home. There was no hope past Let him die at home. He had kidney failure, blood in his lungs, and pneumonia. And she was mad that her daughters were urging her to take her decongestants?!

The relief in that brief group laugh probably added a few years to my lifespan.

The depressing afterward is three sisters reverting to old roles, played against each other by her refusal to communicate, her anger at being helped, her sheer brittleness of ego.

Who is Grandma talking to today? And who has she made feel like a bother?

I can’t go back in time and give my mother better parents. I can’t begin to explain to my grandma how she makes her “loved ones” feel. All I can do is tell the truth, which in this case, is that somehow, these three women decided what they wanted motherhood to look like in spite of their nearest example. I honor all three. And I wish, more than anything, that they could just one more time experience the delicious relief of laughing, together, at their all too powerful ice queen.

the fire pit

They sat in the sagging bellies of nylon folding lawn chairs. The sky behind them was blue-meets-black and before them the fire crackled orange and gold. Slumped, exhausted, hoodies from the garage over ruffles and thin tops, they gazed into those shifting flames.

Two sisters, now in the years where fifty meets sixty, and two silent husbands. Between them, where gazes met flame, were four decades of memories. Babies. Setting up first kitchens. Phone calls about Mom. Learning what marriage meant and how they would each cope with that.

Each carving out a role in the family – how she or he would each concede to the parental will, and when.

My grandpa is dead. He left a week ago. His body collapsed upon him and he slipped as gently as our modern medical system will let someone go, into that good night.

His wife was in the emergency room two days later and now snaps in response to questions – the dreary aftermath of loss. One sister is welcome and two are held this far away. The stresses of helping their mother build over their heads.

My mom and my aunt, my dad and my uncle, will sit around the fire, slowly drinking and smoking. Contemplatively. They will ponder the future of their mother and they will mark the passing of their father. It will not be a sentimental conversation. It will be oddly clear in spite of the smoke.

As a member of this clan, I believe that in the light of the fire pit, only truth is spoken. The truth may not be beautiful, and it may not be what Grandma would want to hear. But what happens here, in this quiet time, is a setting aside of the roles and the drama and the grandeur and the bullshit.

What happens here is simply four adults taking a moment, and a good long drag, to touch ground. They may not know it, but they are in the huddle.

So that, let it never be said, love tore them asunder.

The joy of cooking for one, moms in the kitchen, and Ruth Reichl

Excerpt from Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year

This is the introduction to a recipe from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Part cookbook, part memoir, it documents the year after the renowned food editor was laid off, along with her entire staff, when Gourmet magazine was shut down. For anyone who loves New York, it’s an evocative snapshot of the city’s restaurants and markets, for anyone who loves magazines, it’s a poignant tale of one more recession-era death, and for anyone who loves food, it’s an engaging document of a creative person finding herself again in the kitchen.

I read a lot of cookbooks. I meditate by putting greens in a skillet with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and chopped garlic. I unwind on a Saturday by going to the grocery store. It’s a good week if, when visiting my mom, I can tell her about a noteworthy dinner or two.

And when I describe to her a dish I’ve cooked, we both know it was “cooking for one.” I love cooking for friends and family, whether it’s decadent grilled sandwiches on those “visits with Ma,” or a whole party of savory finger foods. But I also believe one can enjoy home cooked meals alone. I disagree when someone says they see no point in cooking when they’re single. If anything, one should cook more for oneself when one is single, as a morale booster, to make it fun rather than torture to be alone.

Why in the world should being single mean missing out on one of the great delights of life?

I do consider cooking one of the great delights of life in spite of a lifelong issue with what they call IBS. It probably seems odd that someone whose digestive system is a land mine should prefer cookbooks to novels and biographies, and time cooking to time in front of the TV. But on the other hand, it must make perfect sense. When medicine has failed, the gentle philosophies of naturopaths in several cities have made no impact, and your waking life becomes an ongoing mental diary tracking the consumption of “trigger foods” and their impact, food is officially your most codependent relationship. You’re stuck with food, food makes you miserable and delighted, and you both can’t decide who’s to blame.

What else is left but to make love to it?

Cooking bone broth - pork bone broth made from smoked pork

So I read cookbooks. I read them for flavor combinations. I read them to learn how other cultures create a meal, because there as many versions of what constitutes a “dinner” as there are countries on the map. I read them because in my family, cooking was a classic woman’s ritual, conversation about husbands and home life building over the din of stovetop and cutting board, the laughter of men and children in the background.

Recently a friend asked me why I loved cookbooks and then answered it for me with another question: Is it because it reminds you of your mom? I realized, considering my answer, that it wasn’t about my mom, who is an amazing cook, so much as the absence of the dads. This isn’t because I hate my dad or my uncles but because when I was a kid, subliminally I felt like they were always preoccupied about work and sports and other competitive things.

Whereas my mom and her sisters and their mom, my Grandma, were talking about home. They were talking about relationship, family, the reality of now – and whether it needed more liquid smoke. They were not talking about themselves. There is no competitive spirit in these women, for better and for worse. They’re all remarkably okay with the now and with who they are. No blue ribbons needed.

Of course this is a generalization- everyone jumps in the ring for something. But by and large, a conversation in the kitchen was very different than the one going on between the uncles and Grandpa in the living room. I think more than anything, that is what I cherish: the sanctity of it.

And the emotional resonance of it.

We all talk about work a lot, but there is very little emotional meaning in how that meeting went. There is ego, who accomplished what, whether it went the way you wanted. Compare that to how the kids are doing, the new fourth grade teacher, sweet potatoes vs yams, cheddar or Swiss on the casserole, Jeremy’s visit to the doctor, the plot of the book they’re reading… the nuances of daily life. In retrospect, their supposedly “limited” perspective as homemakers looks much healthier than those of us “working professionals.”

In My Kitchen Year, Reichl is married with grown children. But most of her entries describe cooking as a project to satisfy her curiosity, or to feed herself, rather than for a meal with her husband. This was simply the reality of a woman suddenly at home all day instead of working, trying to find herself at the stove. It’s a perfect articulation of the joy of cooking for oneself, although that was not the point of the book by any means.

For the same reasons, I come home from work and I cook dinner. For one. Yes, I strategize about pots and pans, no, I don’t cook elaborate three-course meals. But I chop the veggies and braise the meat and create a sauce for the pasta, just for myself.

I do this because, like the women in my family, and like Ruth Reichl, I find a blissful mental silence at the cutting board. Whether you work in an office or at home, at a computer or by raising your children, your active mind relishes a break.

It’s odd how time in front of the TV silences but doesn’t relieve the mind.

Time at the cutting board, however, always works.

Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year and Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh plus Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook

Grandpa

My grandfather is a difficult man. He has expressed, over the years, hatred of every type of person from women (father of three daughters) to African Americans to homosexuals to Native Americans. The worst human being in his view is the liberal female politician, since she is crazy, stupid, and in power.

He’s always been cool with Martha Stewart, though.

He’s in his 80s and health issues start to pile up now. 6’4″ and hale for most of his life, working in construction since childhood, he’s only started to seem “old” in the past few years. His mom lived to 89 with a retiree’s diet of vodka, Twinkies and “Wheel of Fortune,” but he’s outlived both his father and brother by many years.

For a long time I had nothing left to say to my grandpa. I couldn’t forgive him, as an adult making my own way in a still-sexist world, for raising my mom and aunts to think they were useless girls.

I couldn’t forgive him for programming my brilliant mother to see herself as emotionally troublesome and useless outside the house.

Now, many years have passed and journeys taken. I don’t necessarily believe in forgiveness, especially towards someone who has never sought it from anyone in his life. This is not a post about how I can see the old guy’s point of view, generational differences, letting go of anger, blah blah blah.

I don’t have much emotion left, and I do not excuse a man of any generation for holding his daughter as lesser than a son.

But.

My grandpa’s having a tough go right now and I had to admit to myself that I do care. Here’s why.

He’s John Wayne.

I know that sounds like I’m romanticizing, but it’s true. He looks just like him. He hunts, builds, tilts his head to one side before making a joke. He has this restrained way of refusing to express an opinion, (assuming it’s about a subject close to home, and not Hillary Clinton).

He was still working on his own roof at, like, 70.

Maybe I’m still influenced by one time I was hanging out in his shop with him and a cousin. I was 9 or 10, and I heard him mutter a swear word – my grandparents don’t swear. Next thing I know Grandma is taking him to the hospital because he’s cut the tip of his finger off on his table saw.

Another fingertip went about fifteen years later. Context: He was 65, 70. I date men now who can’t go a week late on their haircut without complaining, and god forbid you need help with anything involving a drill.

I quote him when ranting about Seattle’s inability to deal with traffic and public transit issues.

I get the same pissed off, “Get off my property” rebellious anger when dealing with bureaucrats – they don’t teach you that in the postwar world. It is deep and it is genetic. A pacifist, I wonder sometimes at my quiet inclination to maybe, quietly, get some shooting lessons. Just in case.

Where does this come from? Many will say, attitude is not genetic, but they’ve found now that trauma impacts your DNA. Can roofing a house at 14 give you a feirceness you pass on, even if to a “dumb” granddaughter?

He does not see me as dumb. But I feel that if I had taken his opinions seriously, growing up, I would have been. I feel I had to make my capability a non-issue.

Maybe he’d say his dad made him feel the same way.

I’m trying, struggling, to express a true dichotomy. Is it love if someone is woven through you? Even if that person has, at best, come to respect you in your third decade because you gave him no option?

Even if, at best, he has forgotten how to hate and now just wants to chill the fuck out.

I have no words of redemption for my grandfather. But his ethos has influenced mine. Not the hate, but definitely the determination.

What can I say? John Wayne was beloved for a reason, Republican bastard though he was.

Maybe he’ll make 90 and I’ll read this to him.

Currygiving, or, fixing Thanksgiving

Last night I enjoyed a tasty slice (or three) of pizza at a local spot known for its arty, gourmet pizza combinations. I realized I was tense… but why?

Oh, right. Thanksgiving is two days away. I’m not even doing the whole Thanksgiving shebang this year, but just the angst of year after year of gunky food and bizarre family interaction has left me with a sort of mild turkey-induced PTSD.

If someone invented a holiday involving gorging oneself on sushi, I’d be an early adopter. I’d love to A/B test a holiday involving endless amounts of curry. Enchilada Day? I’m there, heap on that guac and let’s party!

As it stands, it’s a foodie’s nightmare. Turkey is the meat most well-known for its chemical propensity to put you to sleep. Stuffing is made of stale bread crumbs. Mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce? Bland, smooth, gelatinous. This is food for people who have lost their teeth and have to gum their way to nourishment.

As for the day itself? Let’s play this out, pretending you’re a single thirty-something like myself or half my friends.

It hasn’t even started yet and you’re already stressing.

You stare at the closet, wondering what to wear. It has to be ironed so you don’t scare Grandma (Oh dear, look at that crease, she must be unemployed again). That’s the older generation covered, but what about the younger? There will be forty-two small children running around, the offspring of various spouses and cousins you can no longer track without some kind of GPS-enabled app. This means your ensemble has to allow for the “magical” moment when you kneel to “bond” with the seven year old who has pumpkin goo in her hair and wants you to experience the awesomeness of her latest iPad game.

The fashion criteria so far is smooth yet kneel-able (it’s a word now). Just when you think you’ve nailed it, grabbing that pink blouse you hate and the skirt with the elastic waistband, you remember this a holiday about eating. You may hate all the food, but admit it, gorging will ensue. You’d better reach further back into the closet for the skirt that not only has the elastic waistband but is also very stretchy… everywhere.

Okay, good start. But you slump as you don this outfit. You are single on Thanksgiving. You’re wearing the Mom Outfit, with the safe earrings, and the we-might-play-touch-football loafers…

God, is there anyone you don’t have to please on this holiday? This is what made Hillary Clinton such a train wreck.


– too soon?

…and the super-stretchy formless skirt. You’re dressed like a mom. But you won’t have the joyous, warm, rewarding experience of driving home afterward with your children and your exhausted but sympathetic husband, all of you bitching the entire way about how crazy everyone was and all the shockingly horrid things Uncle Fred said.

At least that might offer catharsis.

What you’ll have is coming home to the cats. Let’s be honest. You’ll start peeling your Church Lady outfit as you walk through the door. You’ll beeline it past your furry roommates for whatever cupboard you stash the liquor in. You’ll start to look for a highball, and then give up and pour the cocktail in a nearby juice glass. Downing it, you’ll glare at the birthday card on the fridge. The birthday card from one of these relatives. The card is covered in flowers, false sentiment, and now, the memory of that relative stuffing turkey in her face while espousing the need to kill everyone who ever lived in, visited or even bought online from a Middle Eastern country.

Your cats watch you drink long and alone. Carrying the second round and continuing your de-clothing, you walk to the bathroom and wipe off the eight pounds of makeup you put on to compete with the anorexic cousin who always makes you feel like you’re still an overweight, pimply fourteen year old.

Exhale. It is over.

Finally, free of the Mom Outfit, you carry your cocktail into the bedroom. The cats are waiting for you, stretched comfortably at their appointed corners of the bed. You climb in to join them, lift the remote, and turn on some old sitcom. Because, at the end of a day like this, that’s all you’ve got left. Just: where do I drop my earrings… move your furry paw out of my face… remember to buy more orange bitters… zzzz.

In my mind’s eye, I can see indigenous people introducing us to a new land. In my mind’s eye, we take the cornucopia from these people, and then… we hand it back.

Here. It worked for you. Thank you so much, but keep this. Keep this for you. We’re going to invent something that works for us. A holiday that doesn’t involve stealing your bounty, land, and life.


A holiday that with all due respect doesn’t involve THE MOST BORING FOOD ON THE PLANET.

We may, as family, be stuck with each other. That fact may even be worth celebrating. But does it have to be doused in yams?

We’re going to invent a holiday that includes being honest with each other without judgment or anger. A day without Mom Outfits, even – especially – for moms. A day when nieces and nephews wipe the pumpkin goo from their hair, just for the bitchy aunt who lives alone with her cats.

And goddammit, a holiday based, even if I die fighting for it, on curry.