Old Yeller and The Repo Man: Thanksgiving 1986

The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.

The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.

“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”

I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”

His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?

“School,” he says. “Where else?”

“What else are you learning?”

“Can we just watch the movie?”

So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.

By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.

By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.

The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.

Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.

I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.

All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.

I plan to do something with it someday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Thing

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 “He never knew when it was coming.”

I learned last week that there is one thing about me my husband would change if he could.

Not the size of my breasts.

Not my inability to control myself around a bag of corn chips.

Not the way I start reading his library books before he is finished with them, or try to kiss him when I am still wet from the shower, or my lax attitude towards filling the car’s gas tank. He wouldn’t make me younger, older, or smarter, or funnier — which is saying something because I never get his jokes and can’t remember punch lines.

He would, though, put me in a coma, open up my cranium, and reach deep into my brain to find the switch that is responsible for my sneeze so he could disarm it.

My sneeze, he says, shrieks through him like a three-second hurricane, leaves him shuddering, makes him wonder about me in ways that, if I let myself think about it, might find disturbing.

So I don’t.

I do, however, make an effort now. I not only cover, I run from the room. I try to keep the sneeze all in my nose so when it detonates the only sound he hears is my whimpering as my sinuses implode.

This is a public service message. The marriage you save may be your own.

At least I do not sound like a chicken. Here is a chicken sneezing:

By the way, did you know that…

Sneezing does NOT stop your heart (although it may bring the hearts of those nearby to a screeching halt)?

You can sneeze at 100 miles per hour?

People can’t sneeze in their sleep but some sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows?

For these and other fun facts about the big Ah-Choo click here.

 

 

 

 

 

Life Happens

“It was amazing how you could get so far from where you’d planned, and yet find it was exactly were you needed to be.” (Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye)

What we won't remember

What we won’t remember

If things had been going according to plan, I’d be writing this post from Switzerland, on the last leg of a three-week trip that was to begin with a flight into Zurich, take us through the Alps and into Italy before ending in Geneva.

It was a trip planned with love and care by a husband who can stretch airline miles, find the best deals, and uncover the splurges that make for the kind of memories that shine through the years like slivers of gold at the bottom of a creek.

The kind of trip very fortunate people can plan.

Then, as some like to say, life happened, or as others put it, shit happened. Within forty-eight hours of our departure, a stomach virus hit us both, a loved one was in a frightening car accident, and even though we told ourselves we’d be fine and our kids told us they’d be fine, my husband looked at me hours before we were to board the plane and said, “I just don’t think this feels right.”

We canceled. Our Cairn terrier, who had been watching the packing with growing concern, relaxed. So, for a few days, did we.

Then another loved one got some troubling news and we planned a new trip, one that took us to Burbank where we spent time with him in doctor’s waiting rooms, labs, and keeping him company while he waited for the results of scans and biopsies. The results came. They weren’t what any of us wanted to hear.

When we look back at this time, we will probably remember the shock, and the pain that followed, but we will also remember how we all gathered the night of the day we got the bad news. We will see the meal our kids, still recovering from the car accident, prepared for their uncle and us. We will see the loved faces around the table as we passed the food, poured the wine, shared old familiar stories. We will drink in the laughter that bubbled through our uncertainty and both anchored and lifted us. We will remember how grateful we felt to have each other and to be with each other instead of thousands of miles away.

It is the kind of moment, and memory, that truly fortunate people can have.

Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

A Moment of Silence

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery, photograph by Charles Hansen

Fort Rosecrans Cemetery in San Diego. Photograph by Charles Hansen

On Monday, May 26th, the clock will strike 3 p.m. one time zone at a time. Everywhere across the U.S. people will fall silent, together or alone, to remember those who died at war.

A moment of silence can be powerful. I recall this very clearly when the day after the towers fell, my husband and I were in Italy, trying and failing to get home.

The clock struck noon.

All of Milan came to a complete halt to honor those who had died and to offer whatever thoughts and prayers bubble up in that moment of silence. Traffic stopped. The sounds of horns stopped. Computers stopped. Phones were allowed to ring. A woman helping us in a busy office said, “Excuse me.” She stood with all of her colleagues for five minutes saying nothing. Some closed their eyes. Others said a prayer. We were strangers in that room. The thousands below us were strangers. Yet all of us were bound together in that silence filled with awareness and all our hopes, prayers, fears. We were not alone.

Until last year, I never knew about observing Memorial Day with a moment of silence. I knew parades, picnics, sales. I did it. I want to do it again. I would like to do it this year with others even if we are all in our own homes, yards, cars when we join together in a moment of silence to remember those we loved, lost, or never knew but still lost and should have known.

If you are so moved, please leave names or families we can keep in mind as we fall silent tomorrow. If you have a prayer or a thought to share, please go ahead – you may provide the words that another is looking for and needs at this time.

Here is a link to a list of the casualties of two of our most recent wars. Faces, numbers, names: Faces of the Fallen.

Soon enough, it will be time to leave the silence and return to our days, our weeks, our lives. We can still remember, though. We need to.

Here are some links to organizations that help families left behind.

USO: Families of the Fallen 

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S) 

List of Charities Supporting Soldiers and their Families (compiled by the US Army)

Monday Letters

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The “Kitchen Sink” shortie: all the essentials in a hurry and with love.

It’s five o’clock on Monday morning and my mother sits in bed, knees up, a pad against her thighs, her second cup of coffee steaming within easy reach. Her pen flies across the page in front of her leaving behind a trail of thoughts that have been on her mind for days, minutes, or take shape as she writes.

I can reconstruct this because on more than one visit home back in the early days of my adulthood, I found her there, often with my infant son tucked into the pillows next to her after she’d swooped him up so that I could have a rare extra hour of morning sleep.

“Happy Monday. Hope between you and the numerologist you had a good weekend.” Monday, 1980

These were her “Monday Letters.” She wrote her first one when I left home at 17. As the rest of us tumbled out of the nest, one or two a year, she wrote more. She has written over 1,500 Monday letters to me by my estimation. Add my siblings, step siblings, her godchildren, and fellow travelers she adopted along the way, and we are talking serious writer’s cramp and the death of a forest or two before the advent of email and texts.

“Dear Betsy, a day late and dull stationery to boot and oh dear a lousy pen. Not a very good way to start the day. It’s 6:15.”

Not long ago, I was rooting around in the garage and found a battered cardboard carton labeled “Mom” in black marker. The seams of the box were worn; the top barely able to contain the letters jammed inside. The letters, survivors of my mother’s weekly correspondence, seemed to be pushing their way out of the box to find me. I forgot whatever I’d been looking for and hauled the box into my office and for the next few days, I read them all.

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I picked up each letter with the same combination of eagerness and trepidation I used to feel mid-week when her letters usually arrived.

“Our conversation was most unsatisfactory – to be blamed in all fairness on both of us. I for my part am sorry I always flunk pretty badly when I attempt to contain myself and unfortunately I’ve been containing my opinions on this for a very long time.”

They weren’t always written on a Monday. They weren’t always written before dawn. She used whatever paper she had and whatever time she had between jobs, errands, doctor visits, or when she woke in the middle of the night with someone on her mind.

“I ‘ve been awake since 3 a.m. Thinking of you.”

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They weren’t always fun to read. The letters I found spanned a chunk of late seventies, early eighties when I moved with a man ten years older to the suburbs without getting married and without a job. I went into debt. My son was hospitalized after COBRA ran out. My relationship with my partner slid into a swamp I couldn’t seem to get out off with my self-esteem intact. She called often. We visited when we could. But her letters never stopped coming. Holding one — even the lectures — was like feeling her hand in mine. She couldn’t pull me out but the letters told me she would be there, cheering me on when I finally emerged on my own.

“Don’t beat yourself up.  Whatever you do, we love you.”

Each letter was at least one, but often a combination of the following:  hello, weather report, family news, a verbal finger-prod between the shoulder blades, a long-distance hug, wistful wonderings, a mirror, warning, atta-girl, “to-do” list, food for thought, how-to make everything from chicken l’orange for eight to how to manage money. There were lots of letters about money, how I handled it; how I didn’t.

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These recipes rescued me when I first confronted making dinner for adults

“Thought I’d try to give you a rough outline of how to make a budget.”

And there were plenty in which she wrote about her own fears, her own anxiety about the future, her own struggles to grow.

“Thanks for listening to me. I’m really in a mess. Trying to control what I probably should do with what I want to do. I know that it will work out.”

As I sift through the letters, though, the content of the letters is eclipsed by the fact of them. They are tangible evidence of who I was, who she was, and how we worked our way through the holding on and letting go between a mother whose nest was beginning to empty and a daughter whose start-up nest was a hot mess.

“You have to get a grip on yourself. You will NOT be alone for the rest of your life no matter what. The hardest thing is when you’re really are trying and you really feel that you are contributing and then you get so lonely and are shot down. I’m speaking from the heart. It just doesn’t have to be. You get ahold of yourself and stay hold no matter what and don’t let your stubborn determination get the best of you. Have a good week, Love, Mom.

In them was the determination to forge new relationships not just with me but with each of her offspring and other loved ones, to help us nurture connections with each other. They were her way of reconciling her determination to make us all independent with her desire that we all stay connected. They show that when she had a few minutes to herself, she thought of me, my siblings, all her loved ones, and got out her paper and pen. She started out more than one with “Just wanted you to have some mail.” We all knew that some got longer letters some weeks than others; some weeks were tougher than others. Sometimes, a letter was meant to be shared as was the case with this one to me and my son sometime in 1981:

“Hi, I love you and I hope your respective lives are moving onward and upward. Happily, Hastily, Mom/Gramma”

Over the years, the letters helped to weave the fabric connecting all who received them. We can lob a standard quote, “Have the courage of your own convictions” to a stepbrother or sister and they can laugh and toss back, “And poco a poco” or “Don’t lose perspective.”

We chuckle, but we hear her. Even now, we hear her.

Happy Monday, Mom. And Happy Birthday.

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mom card 2014

A Mother’s Day collage of Monday Letters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Love a Loquat

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It’s spring here in San Diego. The sky is blue, the temperatures are nudging eighty degrees, and I am working hard to come up with all the ways we can eat our loquats before they shrivel into black hairy clumps.

I realize that there may be those reading these words who are dealing with highs of forty degrees, mud, losing the bulbs they just planted to woodchucks. There are those too who haven’t seen the sun or blue skies for more than a minute since last fall. And there are those who will have absolutely no idea what a loquat is or why anyone would want to eat one.

I occupied all of those groups at one point. These days, I not only know what a loquat is but I love the fruit from our particular loquat tree. How could I not? It came to us nearly twelve years ago, a bare stick poking out of a little black pot half-full of dirt. It was a time of beginnings for us. I was a transplant and my husband was rediscovering all the things he’d loved and missed about California. He still speaks of his time in New Jersey (where we met) as “doing time.” That first spring, he was striding around a local home and garden show with a smile of a man who knows he will never feel snow sliding down his neck again.

We almost passed the tree on our way to our car after seeing all we’d come to see. The folks of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association were packing their truck to head home. We bought a fig tree (another stick in a pot) and then my husband told them he loved loquats. Apparently not many people tell them that. They threw in the loquat for free.

“What’s a loquat?” I asked my husband as we carried our foundlings home.

“I used to pick them with my grandfather. I ate them right off the tree.”

That was all he needed to tell me. The loquat was like the wild rapini he and his grandfather would pick every Sunday back in the California of the forties and fifties, or the prickly pears that reminded his grandfather of Italy. The loquat was wrapped up in all the memories of being with a grandfather he loved and knew, for a time, better than his father who was away at war when my husband was born.

We waited nine years to pick a loquat off our tree and now they arrive every February or so. When someone asks me to describe a loquat, I struggle.

It looks like it started out to be an apricot and then changed its mind. It’s a little fuzzy like a peach. There is a sweet, spicy, sometimes a tiny-bit lemony taste when it’s at its peak. Loquats start to shrink within an hour or two of being picked which is one reason they aren’t grown for commercial use here. Another reason is that four or five pits form the core of each one, competing with the fleshy, juicy fruit for space inside the skin. The upside of this is that you can eat a lot of loquats before you’ve filled up.

There is no dignified way to eat them. Juice runs down your chin, between your fingers. The pits, smooth and glossy as stones in a brook, fill your cheeks. You must spit them out and there is no polite way to do this. If you are outside, of course, this is no big deal. My neighbor, for example, loves to practice her aim. Her husband, who is usually her target, does not appreciate this.

If you are inside, though, here is a look at how to enjoy a loquat fresh off the tree, along with some wonderful links to resources, recipes, and all kinds of factoids that will allow you to vicariously enjoy the loquat. I encourage you to check them out although the closest I will probably come to doing anything with a loquat other than eating it fresh off the tree is freezing it, skins and all. You can take them out one at a time. It’s like eating a bit of spring all year long.

How To Eat A Loquat

Step 1: pick and wash (although when I’m outside, I just brush it against my shirt and stick the whole thing in my mouth, spitting out pits and skin later. It isn’t pretty but it tastes great.)

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Step 2: Peel back the skin so the globe of fruit is revealed.

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Step 3: Toss skin and admire the perfection of the naked loquat.

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Step 4: Take a bite from one side and then work around in a circle until all the fruit is in your mouth and the pits are tumbling from your checks like quarters from a one-armed bandit.

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Step 5: Repeat.

If you’d like to try it out on a frozen loquat, go ahead. When you are ready to enjoy them, take a couple out of the bag you’ve stashed in the freezer. Let sit for five minutes or less. Peel as instructed above and enjoy. The great thing about the frozen loquat is that the flavor bursts through in an icy explosion that immediately makes you want more.

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A few fun links:

For the uninitiated, loquats have nothing to do with kumquats which is a citrus.

According to UC Davis, the loquat in SoCal is usually just there to look good but they haven’t eaten the fruit from ours!  http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/dsadditions/Loquat_Fact_Sheet/

There is actually a site called Loquat World! And in addition to all things loquat, it provides some interesting recipes.

A wonderful post in the blog Full and Content: What to do with Loquats 

Finally, an anonymous Full and Content reader provided this handy little recipe for loquat liqueur:

1.75 liters of vodka or rum

Loquats

Pour all of the vodka or rum in a gallon jar and then fill it up with peeled loquats. I cut out the bloom end to expose the seeds. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 months and then strain off the loquats. Mix equal parts of the Liquor with simple syrup, e.g. 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup simple syrup.