Irish Buffet

Irish Buffet

A Hero’s Kitchen

I have no memory of my mother’s cooking before she left my father. After their Midwest life of drunken brawls, evictions and midnight moves, she relocated my sisters and me to the unfamiliar Jersey Shore as we approached adolescence.

The kitchen appeared to be an afterthought in our new four bedroom stucco: four corner doors led to the living room, the backyard, the driveway and the dining room. The backyard door swung open and shut on one side of the stove. The fridge sat on the other side, leaving no wiggle room between it and the stove, it and the living room door. It’s as if no one was expected to cook in there.

In an attempt to provide a semblance of order in her new-found single motherdom, Agnes sat her four daughters down to a gourmet dinner every night. Chopping and mixing occurred on the space between the stovetop burners or on the drain area of the sink opposite the stove. An unspoken rule kept food preparation away from the dining room table.

Agnes insisted my sisters and I learn to use the pressure cooker she’d acquired to whip up potato salad in the summer and mashed potatoes in the winter. After the lid blew off and the contents hit the ceiling, I never went near it again. Her recipe for pressure cooker spaghetti sauce required bunches of fresh basil, and Agnes could only find that at the summer farm stand. I don’t know how much the recipe called for, but she dropped so images-1 2much of it into the tomato sauce it came out like basil stew, delicious over spaghetti but awkward to twirl around a fork.

She thought gourmet cooking meant stirring wine into every dish, usually at the last minute. That way the alcohol wouldn’t cook off. She added wine to chile con carne, shrimp newburg, chicken a la king, beef stroganoff and all au jus sauces. My sisters and I exchanged glances when dinner guests remarked on the richness of the sauce. We’d dare not say anything about Agnes’ cuisine, especially the wine additive, for fear of her embarrassing reprisals like, “what do you know about cooking?”

Agnes cherished continental dining. We sat down to dinner around 8:30 depending on how long she stretched the cocktail hour. My sisters and I fought every night about whose turn it was to clean up. We were so tired by the end of dinner we often left dirty dishes piled in the sink. No one ever took the garbage out. Two or three grocery bags full of empty beer cans continually took up precious kitchen floor space. A friend once referred to the sight of it as an “Irish buffet” which Agnes thought hilarious.

As her alcoholism progressed, Agnes’ dinner-table attempt at a normal life fell by the wayside. But for a few brief years, in that tiny trashy kitchen, Agnes was a culinary hero.

 

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

Family In Three Parts: Skateboarding, Abortion and Jesus

 Part 1 Skateboarding

In high school a new boy arrived at the Jersey Shore from California with a skateboard. Someone made them for all of us using old roller skates and plywood. We skateboarded Skateboarding in New York City, 1960s (19)downhill in forbidden cemeteries until dark. It was the 1960s. Skateboards were outlawed, not because they were dangerous but because they were unknown, not a part of the mainstream and somehow subversive. We hid them in car trunks and behind
old tires in the garage. None of us had standard-issue parents so we formed our own family. Our family stuck together, laughed a lot and listened to each other. The police chased us out of the graveyards, creating a deeper bond of secrecy and protection. We vowed to call each other, not our parents, if we ended up in the police station. Later on, one did, with a bale of marijuana. He didn’t call. He went to jail. Another drank too many beers, drove himself  into a telephone pole and died.

Part 2  Abortion

I thought I should have an abortion. The boy I loved said I had to decide on my own. If I kept the baby we’d marry. If not, he’d never be able to see me again. How could a 20-year-old college student know that? He had more confidence than I, seemed less emotional, but had the same love for beer and the beach and rock & roll. She wasn’t hard to find, this illegal woman in Newark, NJ. When you reached a certain age in the ‘60s, everybody knew someone who knew someone. I drove alone.The three-story house had a small front porch. I climbed the wooden stairs, knocked on the rattling screen door. She answered and asked my name. Nothing came into my mind. Nothing came out of my mouth. She suggested I come back when I’m ready, but “don’t wait too long.” I drove to the boy and we started a family.

Part 3  Jesus

The poet pastor wandered around church saying hello to people with his Shrek voice, usually on his way to and from the courtyard. Sneaking cigarettes. I saw him frequently at the bar in a neighborhood restaurant. Sneaking scotch. As a former drinker and smoker myself, I had th-2a familial attachment to him. When a spiritual crisis befell me, I found him outside, lurking among the Gothic arches of the colonnade. I told him I have  something serious to discuss.  

“Sure, how ‘bout this afternoon?”

Tears got in the way of explaining myself any further until later, in his office. 

“I don’t believe in the Resurrection anymore,” I confessed.  

“Huh? Most people don’t even think about this stuff, Rrregan,” he confessed.  

“Do I have to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian?” I asked.  

“Well, it’s the main tenet of our faith,” I thought he exclaimed, but he probably just said.  

“What should I do?” I asked.

“Wait it out!” He definitely exclaimed.

“You will always be in the church family no matter what you believe. Just. Wait. It. Out.”

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

Eclipse of the Century at the Jersey Shore When My Mother Kicked the Coupling Cats

We stood in the street in front of my mother’s house five blocks from the Atlantic Ocean for what Walter Cronkite called the Eclipse of the Century. My 3-year old son Joe hippity hopped atop a bouncy ball clinging to the red rubber handle between his legs. Stacy, my 13-year old sister huddled on the frosty curb with her friend Billy. They had those cardboard gizmos with pinholes. I thought they got them at school but Stacy said Billy made them in his garage.

My mother never got chummy with her neighbors. A group of them came out from under the trees lining our sidewalks for an unobstructed view of the eastern sky. At one end of the house across the street, a construction tarp hung from the roof to the ground hiding a big hole. The mangled house was under repair after my mother pushed the wrong button on her 1959 Chrysler push-button transmission, slammed on the gas instead of the brakes, shot straight out of the driveway, jumped the curb and punched the house in its face. Unharmed, she passed out but not from the impact.

Billy reminded us earlier in the week that we needed a filter to look at the sun or we’d go blind.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you just have to look through the dappled sunlight under the trees,” my mother said. It was March. We didn’t tell her there were no dappling leaves.

The eclipse moved along the east coast from Florida to Maine. In her 1972 song You’re so Vain, Carly Simon memorialized the once-in-a-lifetime 1970 total eclipse of the sun. Cronkite and others reported that we wouldn’t see another eclipse like this until 2017, an absolutely unimaginable future time.

As the umbra started to move into position for the brief period it would black out all sunlight, my mother appeared on the darkening street carrying a can of Budweiser. Our long-haired white male cat, Mae West trailed along. He abruptly mounted a passing 308px-Solar_eclipse_1999_4_NR.jpgtomcat prompting my mother to kick the cats and scream, “You queers! Cut it out!”

Joe stopped bouncing and looked toward the shadowy sky. Stacy bolted toward him. “Cover your eyes!”

I gawked at my mother, already relishing the laughs I’d get acting out this scene to my friends. They loved her. One of the neighbors hurried over to my mother, “Stop kicking the cats!” The others, distracted by the commotion on our portion of the boulevard neglected to look up. The dark cloaked us but we missed gazing at the Eclipse of the Century.

Billy, unfazed by the street theater, peered at the solar system event through his homemade cardboard pinhole filter for the entire three minutes the moon passed in front of the sun, his Eclipse of the Century. He lived to tell the tale for another five years before a drunken driver took his life.

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

1968 Democratic Convention, or How I Became an Alcoholic

 

When my first husband, labeled Madman Murphy by his Princeton colleagues, came to the end of his Sociology degree in 1968, the campus uncharacteristically fire-cracked with small anti-war rallies, civil rights demonstrations and teach-ins on avoiding the draft. I spent all my free time campaigning for the Democratic Presidential peace candidate, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, in nearby Trenton with our toddler Joe hanging in an Army surplus knapsack on my back. Campus memorial services for Martin Luther King, Jr. ignited nascent embers in the Ivy League gentleman conscience. Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed by Princeton Junction on the weekend Madman Murphy graduated. We partied through the summer at the Jersey Shore. Murphy lifeguarded, Baby Joe and I frolicked on the beach, and we delighted in the safety of the light of day.

At night Murphy and I took turns babysitting and joining friends at our favorite watering holes. I started smoking pot and argued with everyone over the Viet Nam war. Jersey Shore barflies had nothing on me, after all, I’d been schooled by Princeton peace activists and Ramparts Magazine.

President Lyndon Johnson did not seek reelection. After Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June, Eugene McCarthy, the intellectual standard-bearer of peace and justice, was left to shepherd the world toward a Democratic victory in his frenzied campaign for President.

In the summer, I tutored a young cousin in elementary arithmetic and sentence structure. I used my cash to buy stationery and postage stamps and took to writing letters to Bobby Kennedy delegates asking them to vote for McCarthy at the Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. I’d pontificate daily to friends and strangers on the beach and in the bars to test out new reasons to support McCarthy over the late-arriving establishment candidate Senator Hubert Humphrey. I fully expected my work to pay off at the Convention and longed to be at the youth festival planned in my hometown to celebrate McCarthy’s victory.

By the time I joined friends at a neighborhood Jersey Shore saloon to watch the Convention on TV, news accounts of the protests and riots were interrupting coverage of the political speeches inside the Convention Hall. But that didn’t matter to me. Soon all would be well. McCarthy would clinch the nomination and beat Richard Nixon in November. No doubt about it.

The unthinkable startled me out of innocent political bliss. The TV flashed back and forth between white men bullying peace delegates inside and police beating peace activists outside. Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the police to shoot to kill. People who looked like me were dripping in blood.

th-6
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley at 1968 Democratic National Convention

What was happening? Eighty percent of primary voters were anti-war. We won the battle and I was sure we’d beaten back the war machine. The delegates rejected McCarthy and his peace plank, nominated Hubert Humphrey and iced out Democratic activists. 

And me? I added martinis, LSD, mescaline, speed, librium and cocaine to my diet. I could see no future. By the time the next presidential election rolled around in 1972, AA meetings monopolized my time and I did nothing but slap a George McGovern for President bumper sticker on my VW.

Journey to Paradise

JFK was still alive the September I drove with my father in his white Cadillac Eldorado down the pike from our temporary home in Washington, DC to boarding school in Williamsburg, Virginia. My head overflowed with questions. Will they have a television? What will I do after school? How will I wash my clothes? I dared not ask my father for fear he’d mock my questioning of such mundane matters. In his silence I could hear him say, “They’re nuns. They take care of people. Stop worrying.” I wasn’t worrying, just wondering. In spoken language between us, different words seemed to have the same meaning—wonder and worry, driving and speeding, drinking and drunk.

Unfamiliar signs became our talking points.

“Look there’s Fredericksburg. Did something historic happen there?”

He told me it’s a Civil War town. 10,000 slaves ran away from the plantations there and joined the Union Army.

Slaves? I had never been in a place where slaves had lived. Monticello. Is that Jefferson’s home?

I’m not sure how much I knew of Civil War history or American history as I was entering my junior year in high school, but clearly the road signs along the highways in Virginia had awakened some schooling. Petersburg and Appomattox. My premature view of life misinformed me that places I read about in history books, like these, no longer existed.

Until then, I had lived my whole life at sea level—the flatlands at northeastern Illinois’ Lake Michigan and the New Jersey seashore. The Virginia road climbed up and down between wavelengths of blue and green, tree-lined hills with wide verdant medians. My mother used to call me a nature-lover. I guess she was right. The scenery captivated me, as if we were driving through the Garden of Eden. I imagined Paradise at the end of our journey.

“What’s the Blue Ridge Parkway?”

My father loved to drive and he’d already been on Skyline Drive, the main road through Shenandoah National Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our route to Williamsburg didn’t bring us near there. Thirty years later, remembering my father’s description of the misty Blue Ridge Mountains and the hills rolling down to the Shanandoah River, I drove there myself.

At Richmond we turned southeast toward the Norfolk Naval Base, Hampton Roads and Williamsburg. I was leaving no one behind. My mother, sisters, cousins and friends lived in another place, another time with their wild summers and grey winters. A vagabond life brought me to live at Walsingham Academy run by the Sisters of Mercy, the school that housed girls from mothers who didn’t mother and fathers who didn’t father—girls who had ulcers and girls who dyed their hair.

We turned onto Jamestown Road toward my new assignment. Fear tightened my grip on reality. Had he told the Mother Superior I had mononucleosis? Got drunk? Swore? Didn’t believe in God? Had an ectopic pregnancy? Did he even know I was tired all the time, and lost? I feared and I hoped they’d care for my soul.

Suffering the Consequences

Suffering the Consequences

In late summer 1962, I ran away from home; away from my mother, away from my three sisters, and away from our year-round Jersey Shore beach house. My mother had left my father a few years before, after we were evicted from a mid-century-modern in the Chicago suburbs.

I loved moving close to the Atlantic Ocean but not even the beloved beach down the block could keep me from escaping from my mother’s uncontrollable, screeching, violent rampages. I fled to my father, two hours away in Manhattan. He’d moved there to be close to us and to try, once again, to stay sober. My mother suspended her hatred long enough to allow a few visits between us, but when he moved into a new girlfriend’s suite in the Delmonico Hotel on Park Avenue, my mother cut off all communication with him.

When I arrived, he checked me into my own hotel room, across the hall from his and the girlfriend’s suite. I enrolled in the sophomore class at Marymount Fifth Avenue Catholic girls school, where I became fast friends with another girl who lived in a hotel—her father managed the Waldorf-Astoria. I was no stranger to hotel living. My family had lived in the Meridian Hotel in Indianapolis for a year when my parents were drinking round-the-clock and couldn’t pull it together to find a family home. At 8-years-old, I had learned to run a tab for grilled cheese sandwiches and Coca-Colas in the hotel coffee shop. I relied on the doorman to report my whereabouts to my parents when I went out to play, since they weren’t always available to ask permission. I loved that part.

In early December at the Delmonico, I woke to a fiery, closed throat and vice-gripping headache. I went by ambulance to the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital and was diagnosed with mononucleosis, hepatitis and migraine. The doctor explained that mononucleosis is called the kissing disease because it’s transmitted by mouth. Oh shit. Shame ran in my veins alongside the debilitating virus. I was afraid everyone would find out I was kissing a lot of boys and having sex.

Treatment included nausea-producing morphine injections and steroids. To heal my inflamed liver I lay flat on my back for 30 days— through Christmas and New Year’s. Classmates from Marymount brought homework; friends from the Jersey Shore sneaked in beer; my Boston boyfriend came with a stuffed Wiley Coyote; a case of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups showed up from my cousin,Therese. My mother never visited nor called.

Central-Park-New-York-city-NY-6While I was in  the hospital my father rented a furnished 3-bedroom apartment
overlooking the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. Prolonged bedrest in the new home led to my recovery. The compulsory homework necessary for me to move on to my junior year slipped from my hands and onto the floor as I slept off my diseases. I returned to school after four months and failed that year with a final average grade of a humiliating 34.

Before There Were Hippies

Before There Were Hippies

Tom Spencer and I sat in slatted wooden seats on the aisle halfway back from the stage in the Asbury Park Convention Hall at our first concert. The Hall’s open doors and th-1windows allowed the peaceful ocean breeze to float in and around to cool us. It was 1961 and we thought we were the only Joan Baez fans on the entire Jersey Shore.The mesmerizing overflow crowd stunned us.

Until then, our only experience at a live performance was the Manasquan High School variety show. We lived in the remains of the 1950’s cultural wasteland where the middle class would never spend time or money on concert-going. Ignorant of concert etiquette, we refrained from singing aloud but mouthed all the words as our folk hero transported us — All My Trials, House of the Rising Sun,10,000 Miles. Just before intermission Joan Baez introduced a friend from Greenwich Village, Bob Dylan. Oh no! I saved my babysitting money to see Joan Baez, not some unknown. Onto the stage came this scruffy little curly-topped blue-jeaned boy who played guitar and sang a solo, “Freight Train Blues”. They sang “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “Pretty Peggy-O” together. Tom, even though his favorite singer was the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, shared my instant joy and devotion to the twangy-voiced Bob Dylan.

thDylan and Baez sang their love for the poetry of those old folk songs. And we shared a love for the singers with strangers from our own land.

That summer, Tom and I had created a hangout in my mother’s garage with an old couch and a rickety TV table for our record player so we could listen to music and drink beer undisturbed during the day when everyone else was at the beach. My mother accepted my summertime retreat since she never used the garage and was happy to be removed from the sounds of folk music, Motown and Elvis. She seemed to like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, but she had no real interest in listening to music, not even on the radio.

We saved money from our part-time jobs to buy our 45 rpm records. Tom caddied at the Spring Lake Golf Club. I babysat for the neighbors. He had a crush on my younger sister, Erin, ever since we moved into the Sea Girt house down the street from his in 1959. They dated briefly the previous year but she lost interest and he and I became inseparable friends for one important summer.

One day my mother found us in the garage with empty beer bottles, practicing the Twist and the Mashed Potato. She proclaimed us degenerates and told us to go to the beach. We ignored her and roiled with laughter since being degenerate characterized the beat generation. We were reading A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and writing beat poetry. Her proclamation boosted our view of ourselves as beatniks.

The chilly weather and school reopening gradually closed the garage door. Tom’s studies took up his time. And I sought other hideaways where I could drink beer all day and listen to music.