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.

 

The Women in My Family

My cousin, Therese, called me in Chicago to say my mother, Agnes, was in the hospital in New Jersey.

“You’d better come,” she said, lovingly snatching the decision right out of my hands.

On the way down the Garden State Parkway from Newark Airport Therese gave me the lowdown. All my mother’s organs collapsed at the same time and she keeled over. Emergency workers attached her to a ventilator at the nursing home and took her to the hospital. She was brain dead.

Life support. Two words that say someone must make a decision about life and death.

'We can't pull the plug until the paperwork is finished.'None of my three sisters called to inform me about Agnes. I don’t know if I spoke to them as I made arrangements to fly to New Jersey. They all lived on the east coast: Maere in New Jersey, Gael in Connecticut and Stacy in Vermont. Cousin Therese had called Stacy who remained in place, waiting to hear.

Agnes looked surprisingly peaceful, considering she’d lived her last five years in dementia and the previous fifty-five years in an alcoholic haze. I picked up her hand and noticed her freshly painted nails. Therese answered the question on my brow.

“I took her for a manicure three days ago,” she said.

My mother’s chest rose and fell as the ventilator pumped oxygen into her body. The nurse looked in and said, “You can talk to her. She can hear you.” She can? That made no sense. She hardly heard me with a live brain and certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to talk to her dead brain. Don’t be an ass, I could hear her say.

But, just in case, I whispered, “It’s Regan. I’m here.”

Therese left to care for her own family, and I waited alone for the doctor. He gave me the medical information—alcoholic brain syndrome—and said the hospital would require signatures from all four sisters to turn off the ventilator.

I called Stacy and Gael to make arrangements for them to fax their signatures. Maere, who lived nearby, said she’d come to the hospital. By the end of day she hadn’t shown and I couldn’t reach her.

I overnighted with Therese and spent the next two days at the hospital trying to contact Maere. Finally I told the doctor she was unreachable.

“We’ll have to proceed without her,” I said.

His measured response said Maere had been pleading with him every night on the phone to keep her mother alive and that she was sure my other sisters would want that as well. That threw the disposition of my mother in contention. So now the hospital required all the sisters to be present to sign, witnessed by a hospital employee.

They all came, each with different emotions.

Gael was angry that Agnes had disrupted her life. Stacy was happy to help but had to rush back to Vermont. Maere scowled at me. At the funeral, an old bartender friend confided that Maere sat at his bar those days before Agnes died, crying,“my sister’s trying to kill my mother.”

When the nurse turned off her artificial life, something tickled my spirit.

Agnes. She heard my whisper.

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How to Survive Grade School: Leave Thy Low-Vaulted Past

How to Survive Grade School: Leave Thy Low-Vaulted Past

 

First Grade  You have chicken pox and can’t go to school. You have mumps and can’t go to school. You have measles and can’t go to school. We’re all going to live in a hotel for a while so you can’t go to school.

Second Grade We’re moving to a new town and you’ll be going to a new school. The nun says you can’t read so you have to repeat First Grade.

First Grade We’ll buy you a bicycle to take your mind off your shame. What color do you want? Green? Ok. Oh, your sisters want bicycles too, blue and red.

Second Grade The nun says you read well enough to advance to Third Grade.

Third Grade Why don’t you know how to multipy? Come to the convent after school. We’ll have snacks and I’ll teach you arithmetic. You’ll be late going home. Can you cross the street by yourself?

Fourth Grade We’re moving to a new town and a new school. We’re moving again and you’re going to another new school. We’ll be living in a hotel until we find a home. You’ll be riding the public bus to school.

Fifth Grade We’re moving to another town and a new school. We’ll be living in a hotel until we find a home. March to class. March to lunch. March to recess. No talking in the hallway. No talking in the classroom. No talking at lunch. We’re moving into a house in another town and another school. They don’t wear uniforms, so let’s go shopping. Whew! No uniforms. No marching. And lots of talking.

Sixth Grade Hey new girl! Let’s sneak into the church at recess and read the booklet about sex. Let’s go ice skating after school and play Steal the Bacon with the boys. Want to join Girl Scouts? We’ll go camping and collect badges. We’ll sneak off in the middle of the night to meet the boys. I hear the nuns sent you home for wearing a sweatshirt to school. It’s ok. You just have to know the rules.

Seventh Grade We’re moving to another town and a new school. You have to iron your own white shirts, polish your brogues. Learn French. Work harder on arithmetic. You and your sister are playing palace guards, dressed in frog costumes, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Ride your bike to play summer softball. Ride your bike to Cathy Riley’s, then ride her horses into wild raspberry fields.

Eighth Grade You’re on your way to win the all-school trophy for all-around best student. Keep up your grades, sports, tutoring and extra credit projects. We’re moving to a new town without your father. You’ll be living with relatives for the last six weeks of the school year. The school requires all eighth graders to memorize nine poems in order to graduate, including Oliver Wendall Holmes’ The Chambered Nautilus:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

Change Your Life with Lima Beans

     When I put the light green kidney shape in my mouth, my tongue moved it to my baby molars, gingerly munching up and down, side to side, until I felt a mushy bean pop out of the slimy skin onto my tongue. I gasped, and my reflexive inhale involuntarily pulled the glob to the back of my throat. I gagged on the paper-like skin, exhaling the sodden lump back through the front of my teeth and out onto my plate. My little five-year old body sat at that table until “you eat those lima beans.” After everyone went to bed, I dumped the loathsome things in the garbage. That night I vowed to forever hate lima beans and thus seeded a recipe for an unyielding, uncompromising, black and white life.

     Whatever possessed my mother to force me to sit at the table of uneaten lima beans for hours? Was it a doctor who told her that her children needed to eat vegetables? Or perhaps she was trying to introduce exotic foods into our menu so she could show off her three little girls and their sophisticated palates.

     My sisters and I all hated vegetables. The older, Mara, would feign putting a forkful of beans in her mouth with an air of superiority, a competitive streak born in her and never pruned. Erin, the youngest, figured out how to put her vegetables in a neat pocket formed by her napkin and dump it in the trash while no one was looking. Hiding unpleasant situations is perennially rooted in her life.

     When the self-actualization movement bloomed in the 1960s and ’70s with books such as The Prophet, I’m Ok You’re Ok and Be Here Now, I cultivated my deeper self by rooting out my hatred for lima beans. I tilled the soil for a backyard garden in Toms River, New Jersey, and planted the formerly-detested vegetables. When they sprouted, I thought the light green shape hanging from the stem was a single bean. After a few weeks, bumps appeared under the thick skin of the seed pod. I diligently hosed away aphids, leafhoppers, and mites, but I was sure my crop was deformed. Consulting Rodale’s Basic Organic Gardening book, I learned the bumps were actually beans – four lima beans per pod. After a few months, I pulled the bean pods from the vines, broke them open and started eating the sun-drenched crop right there on my knees in the garden. My neighbor flew out of her back door and yelled Stop! You can’t eat raw lima beans! They’re poison!

     Uh-oh.

     This was a new reason not to eat them, cooked or uncooked, but I was determined to use lima beans to crack open the hardened space between “what is” and “what could be.” I brought an apronful of beans inside, cooked, salted and buttered them and ate the day’s harvest for breakfast. They were good.

     Abiding in the distasteful takes practice. The once indigestible lima bean aerated my closed mind and paved the way toward a paradise of tasty, fresh vegetables.

 

Casper the Holy Ghost

Casper the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost appeared to me in the first grade on the day our Catholic school nun taught our class about the three persons of the Trinity.  My shimmying skin signified Casper the Friendly Ghost had floated into our classroom with his new, deeper nature as the Holy Ghost’s doppelgänger. A 1950’s cartoon character, the bubbly, happy, peaceable Casper tried desperately to befriend humans because his fellow ghosts were too sinister.But the poor guy terrified most people even though his spirit was warm-hearted and affable. Now he was one of the persons of God. And I needed Him.

My original first grade at Stone Ridge Academy of the Sacred Heart in Washington DC was interrupted by illness. I didn’t learn about the Holy Ghost until I got to my next first grade in a parochial school in Terre Haute Indiana. I was happy to repeat the first grade so I could be with my younger sister and best friend, Erin.

Third-gader Mara, my older sister, teased me relentlessly about flunking first grade in front of her friends – and what would have been my friends if she hadn’t poisoned them against me. I prayed that my one new friend, Casper the Holy Ghost,would scare Mara away from tormenting me.

I never had any trouble with the Trinity. Catholics bless themselves by making the sign of the cross, tapping the head, heart and each shoulder, while reciting “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The concept of the Trinity was and is still simple – three persons in one, just like a cross. For the life of me I don’t know why theologians are always trying to explain it. Perhaps they didn’t have Casper to guide them in the first grade.
I dressed as Casper at Halloween –  many kids still do. My mother wasn’t the least bit interested in dabbling in children’s holidays, much less making costumes. But my Casper costume was a cinch. As long as I didn’t cut holes for my eyes, she let me drape a white sheet over my head and Erin, in her hobo costume, led me around trick-or-treating. Mara, in her I Love Lucy outfit, ridiculed us surrounded by her pack of friends.

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I started collecting Casper the Friendly Ghost comic books in 1952 when I was six. By the time I was ten I had them stacked up alongside Superman comics in my closet. One day I came home from playing baseball and Mara had thrown away my comic book collection. She said it was time for me to grow up. The slick odor of those mistreated keepsakes haunted me for a time but the quivering feeling of Casper’s friendship and protection eventually evaporated.

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About that time Catholics started using Holy Spirit instead of Holy Ghost. The only image I had of the Holy Spirit was an inanimate white dove hanging open-winged over statues of Jesus. He certainly didn’t look like he needed friends. I slinked away from the Holy Ghost until years later when He fell into my own spirit and turned my old fear of Mara into forgiveness. She’s still scary. But not to me.

Vampire Portrait

Vampire Portrait

The portrait represented my not-surprisingly-sad six-year-old self. People told me as far back as I can remember that I looked sad. Some would even ask why I looked so sad. How does a small child answer such a question?

The oil painting, a three-by-four foot gothic with a gilded oil-rubbed frame looked like an antique. I have a vague recollection of my mother taking my two sisters and I to the artist’s home in Washington, DC, where we had moved for a few years after World War II. We all sat for separate portraits. Mine was the only one the artist completed before my father ran out of money. The artist gave them all to my mother nonetheless and it was one more reason for me to feel superior to my two sisters – my portrait was the best.

I was painted from the waist up seated in a mahogany armchair. Dressed in black velvet with a rounded white lace collar, I held a doll similar to the one my father gave me when I had to stay home from school with the mumps. He bought her in the gift shop of the hotel where we lived when we were evicted from our home. The painting’s forest green background mimicked the dark green velvet of the doll’s coat.

Our family moved around the Midwest for many years before my mother left my father in 1960 – Terre Haute and Indianapolis, St. Louis and Clayton, Chicago and Lake Forest. Those childhood portraits made it through all the evictions, storages and moving vans until I finally got married and my mother gave me my portrait. I hauled it through my own two marriages, divorces and geography. Wherever I hung it, someone inevitably asked who was that sad little girl. I once wanted to rid myself of it when a friend said, “It’s your heirloom.” And so I brought it to a new home in Chicago, where I returned after a stint in Washington, DC during the Bill Clinton years.

My home of 15 years is the first condominium where I’ve had a storage locker. I don’t have a lot of storage items. I figure if you can’t wear it, sit on it, or hang it on the wall, there’s no point in keeping it. For a few years my sad childhood likeness laid in darkness in the basement next to some pictures of my grandchildren and a large suitcase.

Then one day, I needed the suitcase for a two-week trip to San Sebastian, Spain with my California friend Cappi Quigley. I thought I’d bring the portrait upstairs while retrieving the luggage. I couldn’t find the keys to the locker’s padlock so I asked Marcel the building engineer to meet me in the lobby with a bolt cutter. We descended to the basement where Marcel unlocked the steel door to Locker Room B. We located the locker assigned to my condo unit.

The padlock was gone and so were all the contents of the locker.