Perfect Moments

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In the sixties, when I used to sit down cross-legged on the floor to watch the escapades of the Starship Enterprise and her crew, I was a fan of Captain James T. Kirk.  We raised Doberman Pinschers and William Shatner had Doberman Pinschers and he was a charismatic figure.

Mr. Spock inspired less feeling for me. He always seemed something of a cold fish, and since I was a girl of many passionate opinions, I just didn’t care that much for unflappable logic of the half-Vulcan half-human man with the pointy ears.

So I never became a Trekkie (or “Trekker” as apparently they prefer) but I did, in time, get to be a huge fan of Leonard Nimoy. That started at a party, where someone had a copy of The New World of Leonard Nimoy, which contains gems like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Proud Mary,” “I Walk the Line” and “Let It Be Me.”

Nimoy was clearly a man of many gifts. Singing wasn’t one of them. This record was dreadful. And it wasn’t his first, he’d had at least three others before this one, I was told. We didn’t know if he was so tone-deaf that he didn’t know that he couldn’t sing, or if he just didn’t care. There was something appealing about that. Clearly, he enjoyed making records, his ego didn’t need for them to be good records.

Each time I saw Leonard Nimoy doing something other than Star Trek, I was charmed. He was an educated, intelligent, gracious man. He had a strange relationship with Mr. Spock, evidenced by the title of his 1975 memoir “I Am Not Spock” and also by his second one twenty years later “I Am Spock.”

Nimoy was a kind of Renaissance man for Hollywood. He wrote books of poetry, was an avid and accomplished photographer, recorded those awful records, and did film and television work that had nothing to do with Vulcans.

Like a television movie about Golda Meir. And he directed Tom Selleck in Three Men and a Baby and Diane Keaton in The Good Mother. He wrote and starred in a one man play about Vincent Van Gogh. He appeared in a mini-series of The Sun Also Rises. (As Count Mippipopolous. He was versatile, but Jake Barnes might have been a stretch.)

He was not a one-trick pony, certainly, but that one defining role was the one he was never able to shake.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock eat pie.

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock eat pie.

 

He was gentle with his Star Trek fans though, and made frequent appearances in regards to the beloved character. He often appeared with his old friend, William Shatner, including a few cameos on Shatner’s gig for Priceline. There were talk shows, conventions, the role reprised on both television and the large screen.

He provided voice-overs for “Spock” on the Simpsons, Futurama, Big Bang Theory. When Leonard Nimoy’s death was announced this morning someone wrote “Who will tell Sheldon?”

Leonard Nimoy’s stepson signed Bruno Mars to the Warner Brothers. That might have been the extent of it, but no, there’s Leonard playing an fictive self in a ratty bathrobe in an alternate version to “The Lazy Song.” The character is really pretty scurrilous– what Leonard Nimoy might have been if he was bitter and lonely and living in the San Fernando Valley. It’s amazing he was able to keep a straight face, but I guess he had practice.

Because of course, he was neither bitter nor lonely.

In a taped interview included in the New York Times obituary, he explained how the Vulcan Salute came to be. It turns out the that the now iconic gesture– with which almost everyone greeted Leonard Nimoy (including President Obama) was one he observed during a Kohanic blessing at temple when he was a child in Boston.

Though his father instructed him to turn away, to avert his eyes, he peeked. He saw the Jewish priests’ outstretched hands in blessing and he thought it “magical.” He suggested the V-shape hand signal (it is actually the sign for the Hebrew Shin)  to Gene Roddenberry many years later, and a chapter in popular culture was born. But watch the video at the link. To hear him tell the story is lovely.

Just over a year ago, Leonard Nimoy was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s a ghastly way to die.

“I quit smoking 30 yrs ago,” he tweeted to his fans. “Not soon enough. I have COPD. Grandpa says, quit now!! LLAP.”

LLAP. “Live Long and Prosper. ”

“Smokers, please understand,” the messages continued. “If you quit after you’re diagnosed with lung damage it’s too late. Grandpa says learn my lesson. Quit now. LLAP. I’m doing OK. Just can’t walk distances. Love my life, family, friends and followers.”

On the 23rd of February, his last tweet was posted.

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP.

He probably didn’t come up with his last message on Monday. He’s had a little time to think about how to say goodbye to all those people who loved him and his character so much. It doesn’t matter when he came up with it, it is his last, most beautiful, gift to his fans.

My friend David Weinstock wrote today  “Hail Spock, who made the 1970s a better place for Jewish boys with strange ears.”

It must be a very difficult time for Leonard Nimoy’s family and for his friends and for his colleagues and all of the people who knew him so well and enjoyed him so much. I know this to be true because of how his death this morning, at the age of 83, has affected the rest of us.

I admit it, I have wept.

Highly illogical.

 

 

 

 

 

Playing Scales

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It’s not that I have nothing to write. I have a list of things to write. An essay nearly finished,  interesting exercises that I could run through, the writer’s equivalent to playing scales. Tonight an invented one: I found a website that generates random photos. When I asked for one, this is what it sent me.

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I can do something with this picture. I can invent a story about it. That might be fun. For awhile I noodled around with it, but other than riffing on themes of (first) abandonment and (second) longing I didn’t get anywhere. One of the toughest things about writing fiction is keeping out of the cliches that riddle our psyches like land mines. Maybe I’ll write a story about this photo, but I have to think on it awhile.

Years ago, a man disappeared on a jet ski in a local lake. It’s a man-made lake, and it lays like a little dimple on the Ohio landscape. You could sit in a canoe in the middle and see every shoreline and everyone on the shoreline could see you. They found the body of the man, may he rest in peace, but by then I’d already written a story — in my head, of course– complete with Maury Povich, Belize, and the underbelly of Dayton’s east side. I need to get that stuff down on a page.

Non-fiction is so much easier– you just tell the facts. Or try to. Journalists are human, so bias creeps in, even if it’s just in the choices of adjectives we make, or which quotes to include. Yesterday, the Register Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon ran a story about an elderly dog who was stolen out of her yard by “rescuers.” Not “a woman”. Not “a thief”, but “rescuers.”

The story, by Chelsea Gorrow, has gotten an enormous amount of play on social media lately. The dog turned out to be 17, and was being provided with palliative care by her life-long owner. This news story called the dog “Hope” the name the “rescuers” had bestowed on her and quoted them as if their beliefs were gospel. Even though the dog’s name was Zena and they knew that. Eventually she was returned to her owner, who felt his hand was forced and took her to be euthanized the day she returned.

I was moved by this example of bright yellow journalism to do something I rarely do anymore–  to correct the story and send it back to the writer and all four of her editors. They all ought to be ashamed. Of course, I didn’t hear anything back, they probably chalked up the email to “some crackpot old woman.”

But aside from those kinds of egregious lapses in judgment, writing non-fiction is just answering these challenges: make it plain, make it engaging, make the reader stick with it. Who, what, when, where and why is also helpful.

Of course, fiction has those too, but starts with the initial enormous hurdle: make it believable.

I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.

Like I said, I have a list of things I intend to write lo, these 40 days. A list.

So, how is it that I find myself, once again at the keyboard after one in the morning, writing the equivalent to chopsticks? It’s everything I can do not to creep into the living room to watch Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar  host the Late Late Show. Bob Newhart’s his guest. But if I do that, nothing will get written. Nothing at all.

I am just so damned tired. I have projects on every burner, some of them in crisis, some of them boiling over. Today I took time out to go for sushi with my friend Rita. We’ve been trying to get together since before Christmas. It’s been close to a  year since we actually went to lunch. So even though I wavered for a moment this morning and thought maybe I should just work instead, I didn’t. I went to lunch, by God and I’m not sorry. Friendships deserve tending too.

Then I worked.

By the time I was heading home from the office, I felt crummy. One arm aches. I’m plagued with lightheadedness. There are weird twinges here and here and here. I keep dropping things. I believe that stress is either killing me or making me a hypochondriac. Maybe both. So I had a nap on the sofa, and didn’t get anything written and now I’m too tired and I have to go to sleep!

There’s a little flourish, there at the end, did  you hear it?

Maybe there’s some benefit to just dragging my carcass here to the desk and writing something. I hope so.

 

 

Unchristian.

 

This video popped up in a Facebook news feed today. The woman who reposted it is a kind and intelligent woman. I have no truck with her, but I think the people who concocted this little swirl of fiction are immoral, disingenuous, ugly.

To save you from wasting the six and a half precious minutes that I did watching this piece of soppy cinematic saccharine, I will give you a short synopsis. After all, you can never get those minutes back.

The premise is that this boy, about 11 or 12, is huddled in freezing temperatures in a ripped shirt and ripped jeans and no shoes on a midtown Manhattan sidewalk with a bit of cardboard and a garbage bag. About ten feet away from him, a neatly dressed man is sitting on the sidewalk.

We are supposed to believe that this kid sat on this sidewalk, crying and shivering for two hours while New Yorkers streamed past him.

Right.

Finally, the neatly dressed man approaches him, hunches down on the sidewalk with him, and gives him his coat. The man tells the boy that he is homeless too.

Uh-huh.

Then two dudes come up, tell the neatly dressed man that the boy’s not homeless, he’s their little brother, but they’re really touched by what he did so here’s five hundred bucks.

Sorry, no, this does not pass the sniff test.

The two guys are from “Ock TV”, a Youtube channel better known for taping “pranks.” The people involved in this segment were all actors. (You can see the same woman pass through several times in different coats.) The “homeless man” is not homeless. The kid is certainly not homeless. And this little scene did not play out on the streets of New York for two hours.

Two hours would not pass without a cop passing by, or without someone calling the police. That’s a Lane Bryant store they’re sitting outside. Think that every woman coming and going in and out of that store for two hours is going to overlook a kid moaning and writhing on the sidewalk?

Would you?

Of course not. Would everyone stop? No, probably not, but many if not most, would.

It’s very tired, this trope of the “noble homeless” and the disgustingly unaware masses. Some homeless people are altruistic, some are not. They are not, as a group by their circumstances, more noble than the rest of us.

Nor are the people of Manhattan an insensitive teeming mass. People do stop to help.  One afternoon in Tribeca, I took a bad step on a piece of uneven pavement, twisted my ankle and fell on the street. Several people stepped forward to offer assistance. It is simply not believable that a child would be huddled on the sidewalk for more than a minute or two before someone offered him aid.

The daughter of old friends panhandles her way around the country– part of a youth movement called “traveling kids” or “train hoppers.” . She happened to be at home this summer when we were visiting her folks. On  that Sunday afternoon she and her boyfriend made seventy-five dollars panhandling for two hours on the streets of Seabrook, New Hampshire.  People panhandle because it they get a return for their effort.

People help other people because that is human nature. The best part of being human, the most Christ-like of Christian behavior is to love one another.

Despite its appearance on the pious website “Faith Tap”, this video is not Christian. It’s makers fail at Christianity 101. (They’re not too great at filmmaking either.)

This video has been shared via Facebook 99,000 times. More than three million people have “liked” it. I wonder how many of those sent money to these guys?

 

The people who passed by this child on the sidewalk were directed to do so. They are actors. They’re not deserving of your contempt, they probably didn’t even make scale for this.

Reserve your disgust for the young men who produced this tired old homily. They are playing you, they are manipulating your sense of sympathy and outrage to line their own pockets. Remember, we are better than that. We are kinder, we are gentler and on the whole, we look after each other.

 

 

Shoe Bliss

Buster-Brown-Comic It’s a stereotype that women love shoes, and like so many stereotypes, there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere. It isn’t just Imelda Marcos. We’ve all seen those episodes of House Hunters, where she either has a room dedicated to shoes. Or she need a room in which to put her collection of shoes. There’s usually a  smiling, indulgent-looking man in the mix somewhere. When a box of shoes arrives in the mail for me at my house my husband gets that look too. “More shoes?” They’re not Manolo Blahniks. No Jimmy Choos in my closet. I have a tendency to twist my ankle when walking, even in bare feet. I don’t have any clothes that go with that sort of shoe. I sure don’t have the body to wear them naked anymore. But if you love Christian Louboutin, if that’s your shoe groove, all the more power to you. They’re works of art, those shoes. So beautiful. Just not on my feet. Yes, I am the girl of the sensible shoes. I started out in Buster Browns. Once when I was 13, I traded a family heirloom for a second-hand pair of red platform shoes, like something out of  Aladdin Sane. (Weirdly, the other shoes I remember from the closet of my early adolescence  were Earth shoes, blue Adidas court shoes and riding boots.) Mostly my shoes are solid. Save one pair of kitten heels for grown-up occasions, I could sprint after a dog in every pair of shoes I own. il_570xN.331660452 Physical therapists like my shoes. Now, don’t go away thinking my shoes are boring. In my closet, at one time or another, you could find flocked floral black and white Dr. Martens. Pale-pink leather lace-up paddock boots. Black Mary Janes with purple flowers. Yellow clogs with ladybugs. Cobalt blue Beatle boots. At least six pairs of Dr. Marten’s combat boots– and I still want the ones with the Union Jack toe. Not a fan of running shoes, (or running) though I did get a pair of Merrells the last time I went on a fitness thing. I loved them. They were black, modern, sleek, almost elegant. They were designed for “natural running.” They nearly ruined my feet and left me with a year-long misery of plantar fasciitis. Right now as I sit at my desk in my jammies, my feet are toasty and warm in Stegmann boiled wool clogs. Sexy? Ooo-whee, let me tell you. One afternoon I went into a shoe store in Santa Cruz with my friend, Christy. Christy is not just my wonderful friend, she’s my astral twin, my sister from another mother. We walked into this shoe store and our mouths dropped. We clutched each other’s arms. “Look at those shoes!” she whispered. It was a whole store full of our favorite sort of shoe: fun, sensible, playful, comfortable, zany shoes. Cute shoes you could wear running after a dog. Thank God they weren’t having a sale. The right shoe makes you feel like anything is possible. You can slay dragons, talk people off ledges, catch the thief, land the contract, get the guy, get the girl, grab the brass ring. (And this is true whether the right shoe is a five-inch stiletto or a Bass Weejun.) The wrong shoe is as bad as the wrong foot. Best not to even start. I get a new pair of shoes and I fall in love. I hate to wear anything else. I wear those shoes until the seams are falling apart. (Like that last pair of crimson red Naots. God those were great shoes.) Then I’m heartbroken and I have to go shoe shopping again. But shoe shopping for me is a bit complicated– they just don’t have my shoes at Payless or Shoebilee, or Shoe Carnival. My shoes make themselves the object of a quest. And when they arrive, finally, at last, generally through the mail, all is bliss at our house for awhile. This is my perfect shoe. I really appreciate a good black Mary Jane (named after Buster Brown’s sister, did you know that?) and I’ve had lots and I hope I have many more pairs of comfortable, sturdy, sensible black Mary Janes in my life ahead. Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.04.41 AM But a red Mary Jane. That is something else altogether. Hans Christian Andersen’s grim tale notwithstanding, that is the shoe that speaks to me. I never had red Mary Janes as a child. My mother was sensible and bought me the brown ones. I’m making up for that now.

Oh I used to be disgusted And now I try to be amused. But since their wings have got rusted, You know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes. But when they told me ’bout their side of the bargain, That’s when I knew that I could not refuse. And I won’t get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

Addled.

Living Inside the Migraine. 

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It starts with a missing letter in the instruction manual.

The ends of words start to evaporate.

The harder I look at them the more they disappear.

There’s no pain, though, so I’m hoping that perhaps this is something else. Even as I hope I know that I am kidding myself.

 

I am at a friend’s house, installing his new printer. It’s a simple task, but he is older, a self-professed technophobe. What’s remarkable is that he even has a computer.

Something isn’t working right though. Everything’s plugged in but it won’t print, it only wants to send a fax.  The manual, in three languages, has some trouble shooting tips.

Make sure the printer is plugged in.

Make sure the cables are secure.

The harder I try to read the manual, the more the words slip away.

 

The very first migraine I ever experienced was an ocular migraine– an ophthalmic deficit. There was no pain, but it scared the living daylights out of me. That’s not what this is, though. Oh, that’s part of it. But I know that more is coming.

Online, a number for tech support is found– of course, it’s not in the manual. The questions are automated. I answer them. Finally, I have a conversation with someone in the Philipines. A man, a woman, I can’t tell. They are very kind though I am sure they must think I am an idiot. They ask for the serial number.

I try to read the serial number, folding myself over the printer. Is that a D or a zero? It must be close enough. “Thank you so much,” the voice says.

A few minutes later I can’t remember the word “serial.”

The words are slipping away faster and faster.

The technician takes control of the computer by remote. A few settings are adjusted and the printer is working. At least I think it is working. It’s not a Mac, I’m not familiar with the platform, I can’t think of the words I need to use to explain this.

A man arrives, a friend of the friend. I know him, I can’t think of his name. I know his name. It’s not a matter of not remembering, it’s just the name won’t come back to me.

“Hello! How are you!” I offer heartily.  Because we are polite, we make the best of it. They are talking about the Westminster Dog Show. This is a topic I know very well, but I can’t follow their conversation. The sentences seem fragmented and nonsensical.

“Are you coming with us to dinner?” the friend asks.

Only the truth is left.

“I’m in a migraine, I’m so regretful. No, I’m sorry.” My face is pink with embarrassment.

“Oh no,” my friend says “I caused it.”

“No, no” I say, smiling, shaking my head. Frightened.

 

The triggers are cumulative.  Eating. Not eating. Not enough sleep. Nitrates. Stress. Pollen. Hormones. Barometric pressure. Light. The smell of diesel fuel. How they piled up this time isn’t obvious, but even it was obvious, I can’t put anything together in any kind of order. It doesn’t matter why.

They are in another room, I think. I put on my coat and gloves, find my keys, call out my goodbyes. At least I think I did. I hope I did.

The curb is awash in slush. It’s dark out. It’s a bit like being drunk, but there’s no buzz. Just clumsy.  From a stop light, I call my husband.

It’s a struggle to speak.

“It’s a migraine. Coming—  ”

The word “home” escapes me.

“House,” I say.

“Where are you?”

I think hard. I know where I am. I can’t find the name —

“Wa—something.”

“Wayne?”

“Yes.”

I am afraid I won’t be able to navigate the car into the garage, but I don’t know how to convey that. I can’t remember what a garage is called. My brain keeps tripping on “garden” and “gadget”. Those aren’t right. I try.

“I’ll bring car to the . . . porch. Will you park?”

“Of course. I’ll look for you.”

I drive methodically, but it is instinct that leads me home. There is some pain now, someone inside my head with a small hammer.

I wonder if I should go to the hospital instead.  I know that I am out of migraine meds, I’ve been out of migraine meds for months. It’s taken me 5 months to get an appointment with the neurologist, March 4.

But I will go to the hospital if I.

If I.

If I what?

If I think this is a stroke.

If I think this is a stroke I will go to the hospital.

I curl my tongue, roll it to form a tube. Inventory left and right feet, hands, shoulders. It feels like the left side of my mouth is drooping, but when I check my reflection at a stoplight, it looks fine.

Frown lines, I hadn’t noticed those.

The streets are full of rutted snow. The usual U-turn in front of the house won’t be possible. I drive around the block. Where are the flashers?

He meets me on the sidewalk, a kiss.  Our son is waiting for me, he says.

Half-an-hour ago I was fine.

The door opens and there’s my kid, smiling. “Are you okay?”

I shrug, nod.

The word is there, let me find it.

“Headache.”

In the kitchen, I break some Irish soda bread, and butter it generously. I am suddenly starving.

Did I eat today? Yogurt, blueberries, granola.

My son is explaining something. The words cascade over me like water.

“Wait. I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t do more than three or four words.”

My husband comes in the kitchen door, stomping the snow from his feet.

“Do you want some eggs?”, he asks taking off his coat.  “You could use some protein.”

I nod. When he asks how many I don’t answer. I’m not ignoring him. I’m just so addled.

On the sofa, I sit with the buttered Irish bread. On the television, they are honoring Bob Simon on 60 Minutes. When Morley Safer talks about him, I wipe the tears from my face.

The eggs come, I eat them, measuring each bite. Focus on that one thing. The color, the texture, the warmth. A mean imitation of being drunk– everything swims around you, except a single thing you can concentrate on. In the old days, it might be the ice in the bottom of the glass. The cocktail napkin folded into abstract origami. Your lover’s mouth.

Now it is scrambled eggs.

On the sofa I doze sitting up. In half-sleep I hear Bob Simon’s voice and it confuses me. He’s dead. Oh, right. They’re covering his stories.  Srebrenica. The Lost Boys. He’s delighted to return Rafael Nadal’s serve. Naked children swimming, the Moken.

I can’t keep my eyes open. They’re playing cellos made from recycled garbage. “Mongolian horsehead fiddles”, I think, knowing as I think it that I’m wrong. Wrong continent.

When I awake, half an hour later, it’s all over. My head feels tender, like it’s been bruised on the inside somehow. But my words come back to me, lined up in order, ready to serve.  This struggle is finished, this one is done. I go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

Buckley Hill

Looking Up Peel Street

Looking Up Peel Street

Returning to Boston is very uncomfortable. So much has changed there over the last twenty years that it is hard to find a single thing that still looks the same. With the inexorable beat of the developers’ drum, it has been reinvented several times over, with plenty of money changing hands each time.  Even the historic parts, which somehow ought to stay the same, seem swept up in a kaleidoscope of memory and change.

But this is not about Boston. It’s only mentioned because it is in such stark contrast to the village in England where I landed at age 10-and-a-half after my life took a dramatic fork in the road. That place, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England is a place that seems never to have changed.

Through the eye of Google earth, I can visit it again from my desk chair. I can virtually walk up Peel Street, past Pogson’s bakery where we used to buy “ham butties,” past the hardware store where I tried to buy elbow grease. I can turn left up Brougham Road towards my old school. There was a shop along there where we went regularly for fish and chips, wrapped in newsprint.

Those places are probably gone now, or changed hands or perhaps they’re sweet shops or hairdressers or a 99p shop. But the street itself is much the same, the bridge over the River Colne, the slumbering gray-green Pennines hemming in the horizon all around.

We lived at the bottom of Peel Street, where it meets Station Road, next door to The Swan, which used to be a pub, but is now a youth hostel apparently. The house, number 3, was called “Buckley Hill” — and that’s a how a letter would reach me– at “Buckley Hill, 3, Station Road, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England.”

There were plenty of letters sent by my father, and other relatives left behind in the States, writing with news of dogs and the American Top 40 and the Connor kids up the street.

(Letters went the other way too, from the post-box in the wall in front of the house: the pony (Minty), my teacher, Mrs. Docker,  was tired of me always writing about horses. She has silver-gray hair to her waist. Cadbury Flake is The Best!!!, but could you please send some Tootsie rolls?)

 

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Buckley Hill

But this is not about any of that either. This instead is about Buckley Hill. In the spring of 1973, at age 11 and a half, I walked out the front door, got in the backseat of our grey Morris Minor, went to the Manchester airport,  and left forever on a BOAC jet bound for JFK.

Yet, I remember the house with it’s tiny walled garden and its 300-year-old kitchen more clearly, more vividly than so many other things that have come and gone.

In Connecticut I’d had my own room, pink, in a rambling four-square on a corner. In Connecticut I’d been an only child.

Among the many changes that came with life in Marsden were the addition of a step-sister and step-brother, and the three of us shared a room.  It was over the kitchen and the pipes that ran up from the AGA cooker warmed it. Casement windows looked out over a long narrow courtyard between us and the Congregational Church. It was there I set up a series of little hurdles to play “show jumping” in the long days between riding lessons.

Each night I slept in a little white metal bed. There was a nightstand, and a desk. It wasn’t unusual to stay up late reading with a flashlight under the covers: Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, The Chronicles of Narnia. On the desk, there a portable record player in a tan-buckram case where I played my cherished collection of Beatles records until someone appeared at the door and said “Get to bed. Now.”

We always parked in front of the house, and came in through the gate. The  drawing room had a line of chairs and a square grand piano. Up the right hand wall rose the staircase. My stepfather was the village physician and this room and the one directly above it were dedicated to that. Not much ever seem to happen in the room with the square piano, but you’d occasionally find strangers sitting there– women working on their knitting, men from the mill.

At the top of the stairs then was the domain of the staff– Peggy and Eileen and Dulcie. There were others. Typewriters and telephones and shelf after shelf of manila folders with the medical histories of every one in the village. Those rooms belonged to some other purpose and we were to steer clear of them.

There was one  bathroom in the house,  up the stairs and at the end of the hall, for staff and family alike. One long bathtub, big enough for two ten year old girls to bathe in at once. The toilet tank was up near the ceiling, and you pulled a long chain to make it flush. There were antiques in the bathroom. I’d never seen that before.

Downstairs,  a door on a swinging hinge opened into the family sitting room. Most of the room was taken up by yet another grand piano, and leather arm chairs nestled around a coal grate. Those chairs, inexplicably, have managed to stay with us for more than 40 years, and sit in my mother’s living room in South Carolina.  When you curled up in the chairs, it seemed that the piano was looking over your shoulder.

William, age six, used to sit on the piano bench and pick out delicate melodies along the keys. He’d been brain-damaged through an accident at birth: cerebral palsy, significantly reduced hearing and sight, cognitive deficits. If he wanted something he sang. “Would you like some tea?” meant that he was hungry.

The kitchen was the original room of the house, with stone walls and stone floors worn smooth. Milk was delivered each morning in pint bottles at the door, and was consumed immediately, which was just as well as the refrigerator was tiny, about 18″ square. My mother used to grouse that the room was so cold that the refrigerator was redundant anyway. There was a yellow box of Weetabix, William’s favorite.

William and Hannah and I ate tea in the afternoon, sometimes my mother made it, other times in was Jean Woods, the housekeeper. There was eggs and toast, Robertson’s jam with golliwog on the label. In the corner was  near the AGA stove was a small black and white television on which we watched Coronation Street, Top of the Pops, Show Jumping.

For years I wore a triangular scar on the back of my wrist, where I’d been pushed against the AGA in the midst of an argument with Hannah. The AGA was always on, summer or winter. The scar has faded so much that nowt  can’t find it anymore in the roadmap of my hands.

I don’t remember what the squabble was about. What to watch on the telly. The horrible smell of the fried bread she liked to make. That some boy liked her better than me. Who ate the last McVitie’s biscuit.

One afternoon in the kitchen– Hannah came back from the orthodontist in Manchester with new black and maroon platform shoes. I was livid and not at all gracious, as just a few weeks earlier I’d been made to get plain brown sensible oxfords. That was the difference between going shopping with Humphrey who would indulge such whimsies if it suited him, and my mother who thought that children shouldn’t dress like trollops.

They’d brought me a riding crop as a consolation prize, which only added to how much trouble I was in for being beastly about Hannah’s new shoes.

On Christmas day the town band crowded into the kitchen filling up the room. They played for the doctor a selection of carols of the season, and the the very last song was “My Old Kentucky Home,” especially for my mother and me, the Americans. How thrilled I was that they played a special song, an American song. It made me homesick, but in a nice way.

 

Of Soup and Love

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“Of soup and love, the first is better.” — Spanish Proverb

 

It’s been cold for days. It’s the end of the month, which means both groceries and money are short. But there’s a chicken in the freezer and soup seems like a good idea.  My mother made a chicken soup and rice when I was growing up; it was an excellent soup for tea and sympathy.

Years ago, in the unending quest to make chicken soup interesting, I concocted a recipe which has become one of the standards here: whole chicken, well-salted, simmered until tender. Remove the carcass, add chili powder, cumin, sriracha, blend to incorporate schmaltz and broth.  Pick chicken. Set aside the cartilage, skin, and nasty little parts for the dogs. Return the meat to the broth, add corn, diced red pepper, vidalia onion, garlic, beans, cilantro and rice. Serve with diced avocado, shredded manchengo cheese, more chopped fresh cilantro.

It’s a good night for it, and it makes a huge pot of food and sustains our little family for several days.

Given that I was wrestling pigs in mud (well, really, I was handling people being obtuse, but it might as well have been pigs in mud) I asked my beloved if he would mind putting the chicken in the pot to start. He swears he added salt, but I think he must have been distracted. He kept rushing the pot outdoors to the nearly-zero temperature so it would cool quickly. My God, we’ve developed hang-ups about food safety regarding chicken.

The carcass is cooked to the point of disintegration. No big deal, it will be more like a chicken stew. I chop and slice, open cans and bags of vegetables, add the rice and go to read. Occasionally, wandering through the kitchen, I give it a stir, add a bit of something. An unsalted chicken is a tall hurdle to cross.

Along the way I am distracted. When I come back to check, the rice has cooked nearly to porridge, a kind of Chinese jook. Not my preference, but it will be okay. But when I begin to stir, I realize that the rice has scorched to the bottom.

Now the members of my husband’s tribe make a scorched rice soup– it’s called something like “fahn-del” — that may not be right– it always makes me think of a baby’s “fontanelle” when he mentions it. He used to claim to be making scorched rice soup every time he burned the rice in one of my saucepans.  Eventually we bought a rice cooker.

So now there is a slight scorched taste to the soup, but adding more sriracha and cilantro masks it well enough. Elmer doesn’t mind. Later, when I lift the lid to show our son that there was a pot of soup, I see that it is full of something that looked like blackened cornflakes floating on the surface.

“Did you scrape up the scorched rice from the bottom of the pot?” I ask him. He nods vigorously, smiling. “It’s good that way.”

For you, maybe.

He may well be Chinese-American, but he was born and brought up in Los Angeles, and grew up eating hot dogs and fried chicken along with the traditional dishes his mother made. Why on earth would he think that we would want to eat soup with scorched black rice bits floating in it? For a moment I wonder if it was some kind of passive-aggressive nonsense, but another carryover from growing up Chinese is the inability to waste food. (“I’ll just scrape the mold off, it will be fine.”) So he wouldn’t set out to ruin a pot of soup for the rest of us just to be bloody minded.

Julian heats up some frozen taquitos.

There’s a maple yogurt in the fridge, I can add some granola to it.