musings from boston

screams, whispers and songs from planet earth

Category: Musings (Page 1 of 10)

Mom’s Cookbook

KitchenWallpaper

I knew why I hadn’t taken it. It was an old French-style Julia Child type of cookbook with a faded yellow cover, with loads of recipes for meat dishes and other things I don’t eat and haven’t eaten for years. It was highly unlikely that I would ever want to cook up beef bourguignon in this lifetime. Besides, French dishes, with their over-abundance of cream sauce, always wreak havoc on my digestive system.

And yet — it was Mom’s cookbook, and as I realize now, when it’s far too late to retrieve it, that she was a brand new homemaker when it was purchased, in the late 1950s when she married Dad. And I also realize, too late, that hidden in its pages were very likely family meals that she prepared throughout my childhood. For a strange reason, quite suddenly, my disregard for that tattered old book feels like a dreadful mistake and the thought of it gnaws at me, like some terrible loss.

Certain dishes I remember. There was salmon souffle, served in little Pyrex custard cups that I also parted with, as I was trying to be practical when I selected what would come back to Massachusetts with me and what would be left for the Connecticut estate sale. Chocolate pudding, which I remember helping her mix up and cook in a saucepan, for the privilege of getting to scoop out the delicious hot chocolate remains, straight from the pan, was also served in these custard cups.

Mom also made veal parmigiana, in single-serving ceramic cordon bleu au gratin baking dishes — thankfully, those I kept, though I have no idea why. There are three; one for each of us. She also made these pastry cheese puffs, which I loved. They featured Cheese Wiz and a single green olive pushed into the center of each one, which was my job to insert, when we worked together to create them. I was so young — how is it I remember this? As I recall, they were only made when we visited family or for the rare house party they once had for Dad’s coworkers. I also remember Mom making veal chops and asparagus, and there was a baked salmon dish that was made with a sweet sauce — I think it was something like orange juice and soy sauce?

Some of these things may have been in that cookbook; I’m not sure.

What’s more, the cookbook had a handmade book cover, to mask the old yellow board of the original. This was probably crafted by Mom, from leftover kitchen wallpaper — a bold, eye-popping mid-’70s burst of whimsical orange and yellow flowers. That seems like something a person who is hopelessly nostalgic would keep, doesn’t it? But it was in the hectic months after Dad died (Mom was already a year gone) and I had apparently put my sentimentality on a shelf so that I could carry on efficiently with the impossibly difficult and heart-rending task of going through nearly 50 years of family memories.

It all made sense at the time. It was in the middle of winter, and I was spending a small fortune on heating costs (to keep the old pipes from bursting), real estate taxes and the rest of it, traveling four hours back and forth every other week, and I didn’t want things to drag on and on. So, I journeyed between my place and theirs, bringing down junk I had no further need of, and bringing back mementos I wanted to keep. Mostly, I think, I made the right decisions. I took very little furniture — just their two favorite chairs and a few smaller plant tables. I brought back a beloved statue of a Native American family that Mom discovered in a department store display and spirited away, certain household items and supplies, various decorative items, some of their books and records and CDs, a lot of artwork and several cartons of photographs, slides, films, cards, letters and important documents. It was enough. It was already too much. But every so often, there was a little pang of regret — inexplicable sentimentality over something rather insignificant that I have no power to rectify and had no use for to begin with. Maybe it’s a strange form of self-protection, to avoid facing those really big regrets. Or perhaps it’s symbolic.

Who knows what became of this vinyl-wallpaper-covered old cookbook? I close my book of thoughts on this wistful subject with the hope that in some thrift shop in Connecticut, it fell quite unexpectedly into the hands of a new homemaker whose heart was warmed and curiosity piqued by this charming throwback from simpler, less nutritionally-aware times. And who knows? Maybe they’ll try out a few of the recipes. That’s more than I would have done.

Grief works in mysterious ways.

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Cold Toes for Secrets

Oh howling wind, can I know your secrets?
We are now lovers
I am no longer fearful of you.

Once I made the decision
to forego
a life in the sun
I committed myself to understand
your austere, mysterious ways
however long it took
and however many sleepless nights
and cold toes.

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The Year In Review: 6 Things I Learned About Myself

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1 – Surprisingly, I am capable of being a “morning person,” so long as I get to sleep before midnight. And in fact, I will frequently awaken with strange and wonderful delights in my head that I can put to paper.

2 – I can successfully and single-handedly navigate through probate, go through the contents of a 7-room, 50-year-old family home, prepare said home for sale and close on it, and coordinate eight different contractors and their crews to do various projects around my own hovel — and not lose my mind or get (too badly) ripped off.

3 – I actually don’t enjoy being at a venue I don’t like, seeing a band I don’t care for, late at night — and I shouldn’t feel like I “should” be there because it’s what other people do and seem to enjoy. Sometimes it’s OK to stay home and read a book (although this might just be a function of getting old).

4 – White is my least favorite color, and everything in my home, inside and out, is white. I literally just realized this fact this year. It’s thanks to the previous owners and their unfortunate design sense and peculiarities. Even white people annoy the hell out of me at times, which is odd, seeing as how I am one.

5 – It’s not always helpful to be cynical and sarcastic, even if it does get you more followers on Twitter. Sometimes it’s cool to find positive things in life that you can share and make other people feel good about. Or, as an astrologer friend of mine is fond of saying, “Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

6 – Feeling burdened by regrets and “I should have’s” is a sad and terrible way to mourn the loss of loved ones. A far more positive way, and one that pays dividends while easing the pain, is to channel all that love outward into a creative process, such as organizing photos, slides and films into an online memorial, or transcribing informal interviews into background material for a novel. I am doing both.

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The Menorah

Menorah

I don’t usually celebrate Hanukkah, but this year it somehow felt like the right thing to do.

As I lit the first night’s candle and the shamash center candle, I said, devoutly, “for you, Mom and Dad.” It seemed a little ridiculous, for Dad’s sake, as he was a devout agnostic. But he died last year, just a few days into the Jewish Festival of Lights, so this holiday will be forever linked with his passing.

I was with him, in the hospital, in his final days. He had grown confused, though he had some lucid moments when he seemed his old snarky self, such as when a gentleman came in to speak with us, to see if we were satisfied with the care he was receiving. At the end of his visit, he moved very close to Dad, leaning in so he could hear him, and told him that he had to be strong and pull through, as it would be unappreciative of god not to do so.

Fortunately, Dad didn’t hear him, and when the man left, he asked,” what did he want?” I replied, “he was asking what you thought of the care you’re receiving — with a little missionary work on the side.” Dad laughed, and I was grateful for the opportunity to provide a rare moment of levity in the most dire of circumstances.

The menorah is old. I remember it from my childhood, when Mom was younger and healthier, and she would light it, in a noble attempt to honor our Jewish roots. Around the same time, I was sent to Sunday school. Although well meaning, this practice was soon abandoned, when it became apparent that neither of them had any intention or desire to attend synagogue, not even on the High Holy Days. Being rebellious, I was quick to point out the hypocrisy.

The menorah is also unstable, and it occurs to me that this probably isn’t a good idea, with multiple burning candles haphazardly stuck into small wobbly candle holders. But it represents our family dynamic perfectly — elegant and kindhearted, yet fragile and flawed.

The candles are old, too, judging from the 1970s-style graphics on the box. They’re special “Chanuka candles,” direct from Israel, 44 of them. It’s an odd number, but that’s exactly what is needed to celebrate properly for the full eight days. Although, when I counted them, I discovered there were only 43. What happened to candle #44? It seemed quite odd that someone would open the box and use one candle. This made me chuckle, especially when I heard softly in my head, “a day late and a candle short.” That was Dad’s humor, cynical and self-deprecating, and my heart soared at the thought that he was there in the room with me. Maybe Mom was as well, watching as I resurrected an old family tradition.

I took in the scene of the slowly dwindling candles, with my Tibetan Buddhist statues standing guard in the background. That seemed fitting as well.

On each night, as I babysat the burning Hanukkah candles to ensure that I didn’t start a fire, vague memories of holiday celebrations trickled in, like wisps of smoke as each thin candle slowly extinguished.

For each night of the holiday, there would be small gifts, as is the custom. One I recall was a little sack of milk chocolate coins in shiny gold tin foil covering. At times, we would visit my aunt, uncle and cousin, who lived nearby, though that was typically for the Passover Seder, a more structured affair. Following copious amounts of wine and an attempted read through of the ceremony, gifts would be hidden around the house, which the kids (my cousin and I) would try to find.

In my early childhood, I was envious of those who got to have beautifully decorated Christmas trees. One year, my parents went out and bought one. When it came time to dispose of the tree, they were too embarrassed to put it out for the trash, as people do, since we lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. So, my enterprising father cut it up and burned that sticky, sappy pine tree in the fireplace, filling the house with dense smoke. This incident became a favorite family holiday story.

Two Jews trying to make a large Christmas tree disappear.

Two Jews trying to make a large Christmas tree disappear.

It just so happened that at the time of Hanukkah this year, I was reading a book I had purchased as a gift some years ago for Dad, but never read myself — “The Lower East Side Jews,” about the Jewish immigrants who came to New York City from Russia in the late 19th century. They were escaping the Russian pogroms. The story follows Abraham Cahan, a key figure in the Jewish socialist and labor movements, and editor of The Forward. Simultaneously, I had just discovered a rather brilliant Amazon Prime TV series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” about an Upper West Side Jewish husband and wife and their family, which takes place in 1958. They have what seems like the perfect life, except that they don’t (dysfunctional Jewish family, a perennial theme), and it’s also the tale of a woman’s journey of self-discovery. Suffice it to say, it was a mystical convergence.

I think it was a combination of the two that was so perfect for me. There was the literary discussion of Jewish laborers and the first American unions, the Yiddish theater and Yiddish press of the Lower East Side, where my grandparents ran a luncheonette on Second Avenue, on the same site where Veselka serves up blintzes and borscht to this day. And then a spot-on portrayal of New York Jewish culture with the crazy shenanigans and banter of the Maisels, who reminded me of family get-togethers in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island in the 1960s.

They say that one becomes more religious as one gets older. It must be the realization of one’s mortality and I suppose the sudden need to “hedge one’s bets.” Though I don’t think Mom felt that way, and Dad, if anything, became even more of an agnostic in later years. As for me, it’s just that the sight of the menorah and the vintage box of Hanukkah candles makes me think of family, and an earlier, simpler time. It’s a fond nostalgia that tastes of bagels, lox and cream cheese.

Mazel Tov!

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Another Entrance to the Attic and to One’s Creativity

The Home Improvement Series, Part 10 of 10

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The problem: The only entrance to the attic was precarious and dangerous, making it difficult to access.

The metaphor: In dream interpretation, the attic of a house frequently represents spirituality and higher thought. Adding a second entrance is like finding another way to access one’s higher purpose and creative aspirations. At the same time I had a contractor install pull-down attic stairs, I started meditating again, so that I could be calmer and better access my creativity.

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Insulating Oneself Against the Cold, and the Darker Places in One’s Mind

The Home Improvement Series, Part 9 of 10

HIS_AtticInsulation

The problem: The vermiculite abatement (see The Home Improvement Series, Part 4) also stripped the attic of its insulation, just ahead of a New England winter. Not good. For me, a person who hates being cold (it must have been a previous life experience), new insulation was essential.

The metaphor: It wasn’t just about restoring physical warmth. It felt like I was craving emotional warmth and protection from the darker, colder thoughts, in addition to the elements. It was also about making the most of one’s circumstances, and about being comfortable in one’s own skin.

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Fitting It All Together: The Repairing of Door Frames

The Home Improvement Series, Part 8 of 10

HIS_FramedDoor

The problem: Things weren’t quite fitting right.

The metaphor: Squaring up the frame to accept a new door felt like working on the structure of one’s life. Sometimes, one must examine our structured life to make sure it will allow for new ideas and experiences to come in.

It is important to have structure in one’s life, to face the world and come at new challenges from a secure and steady place, but it is possible to become overly rigid. A dear friend once said to me that one of the most important lessons we can learn as we get older is to be flexible.

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New Doors Will Open to New Possibilities

The Home Improvement Series, Part 7 of 10

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The problem: Corrosion, and in some cases, an incorrect type of door. For example, a door to the garage that houses a gas burner must be fire-resistant, not made of wood. A crappy wooden interior door with no insulation and no deadbolt is not a good idea for an outside door.

The metaphor: I must keep myself secure from negative outside influences and distractions that keep me from my important work. But at the same time, doors allow escape from confinement, and they allow others in.

New doorways can represent new possibilities, as in a direction not previously investigated. As one steps across a threshold, choosing a new direction, one learns more about oneself and the world.

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New Windows, Better Access and a Fresh Outlook

The Home Improvement Series, Part 6 of 10

HIS_OpenWindow

The problem: The windows were broken — hard to open; even more difficult to close.

The metaphor: I am hoping for a clearer vision outside of myself and my immediate surroundings. Also, when the windows are clear, when defenses are cautiously lowered, others are allowed to see in.

In the past, I have had difficulty in navigating access to the outside world. The question has always been: What do you share and what do you keep private? Once you give others complete access, it is difficult to pull that access away. You may be seen as insincere. It is best to have clear boundaries from the beginning. But don’t be too difficult to open.

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A Small, Rotting, Rickety Old Porch

The Home Improvement Series, Part 5 of 10

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The problem: Sometimes something that’s old and no longer viable must be fully knocked down and cleared out before you can begin anew. In a physical sense, it was an old wooden enclosed front porch—tiny, nearly useless and sinking fast into the ground. The entire thing was pitched at an angle, the roof no longer level. Long ago, carpenter ants had feasted and moved on to more fertile surroundings. It was long past time for me to move on as well.

The metaphor: Like the old porch, I had become rickety in my belief and confidence. I needed to break out of the narrow confines of my self-image and into a more expansive space where I had room to grow.

It’s about expanding one’s boundaries, real or imagined, and setting one’s sights on broader possibilities and a wider horizon. The new porch will be made larger and open to the outdoors. There will be expanded vision, out to the ocean and to the open sky, getting out of my comfort zone and out of a restricted space, into the larger world.

Remade of stronger material, we will be resilient in the face of strong winds, challenges and adversity.

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