Monday, December 19, 2005


Truman Capote remembered a beloved aunt, Miss Sook, in a short story--almost a prose poem, really--called A Christmas Memory. Every year, as the weather grew cold in rural 1930s Alabama, Miss Sook would exclaim, "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather!" thus initiating a frenzy of Christmas baking of individual fruitcakes for the strangers she thought of as friends.

I've never liked fruitcake, but reading about it through the mist of Capote's nostalgic reverie for a world and a youth long out of reach, I almost do. Perhaps it's the way he describes Miss Sook's devotion to the task, the effort of rounding up the ingredients, the boldness of sending one of the cakes each year to President Franklin Roosevelt, the joy of getting a letter of thanks on White House stationery. Perhaps it's the way his memories seem to twin my mother's reminiscences of summers in southeastern Missouri as a girl, where the changes in season brought persimmons and walnuts, blackberries and honey. One summer, long after my mother's girlhood, my brother and I visited our Missouri grandmother. She took us blackberry picking; or rather, she sent us over a wooden fence into the pasture where the best blackberries grew. "Watch out for the bull," she said, as she handed us our pails. "He's a mean one, but he won't charge as long as you keep to your business."

I loved my Missouri grandmother. She knew all the birds and all the flowers in her part of the world, and she not only ironed her bed linens, she starched them too. At the top of the steps leading from the kitchen to the second story was my favorite bedroom in her house, which was her parents' before her. It had a three-quarter bed--not a double, not a queen, but somewhere in between--in whose crisp sheets I would fall asleep with the windows open to the magnolias and the scent of the damp earth below.

She was a hard woman, though, with a rigid outlook on life, and my mother's sensibilities--so fluid and so highly attuned to nuance--were generally outside her mother's scope. I don't know that they liked each other much, but they had a fierce, dark love. The sort of love that creates a tension without which a person collapses from lack of self-sustaining support. I sometimes think my mother began her final collapse the minute her mother died.

After my mother's suicide, my sister and I went to the same Italian bistro every Tuesday night for two years. The fare there is simple--pasta salads, fettucine alfredo, green salads, minestrone, stromboli, pane cotta for dessert, and even a very un-Italian Key lime tarte with shavings of white chocolate on top. We spent hours over our dinners, remembering our mother together, repeating the same stories over and over, laughing at her wild humor, raging at the wounds she'd left, weeping for her suffering and for ours. This December, the third anniversary of our mother's death, we realized we hadn't been to the bistro in months, maybe even a year. So the Tuesday evening of the anniversary week, we met for dinner there and ordered Tuscan pot roast.

At first, it seemed an odd choice. But every December, I give blood in memory of my mother, and since I tend to run low on iron, I eat a lot of beef in the week or two before the scheduled blood donation. So, that night, Tuscan pot roast was the obvious choice. It was delicious. Cooked slowly in a tomato-garlic broth and served with horseradish, the meat yielded under the slightest pressure of the fork. We ate in almost complete silence.

Afterward, as we mopped up the juices with our bread, we began to recall pot roast recipes. There aren't really many, and they're all a variation of the same key ingredients: a cheap cut of beef, carrots and potatoes, and a liquid of some sort, all cooked slowly in a roasting pan at a low temperature. My mother, a gourmet cook, always swore by Lipton's onion soup mix in her pot roast. But the pot roast recipe I like best is from Elizabeth David, an English woman who wrote a number of classic cookbooks starting in the 1950s. My mother's French cooking was pulled straight out of Elizabeth David and Julia Child, and she passed her love of them to us. In her memory, at pot roast season, I'm making Elizabeth David's pot roast (which she calls a "daube").

POT ROAST (or Daube)
4 -6 ounces bacon, cut into cubes
1 tbsp olive oil
a large onion, sliced
3-pound beef roast (a cheap cut is fine)
2 cloves garlic
a bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, and a bayleaf tied up with cooking twine)
8 ounces of red wine
8 ounces of water or stock (beef, chicken, or vegetable)
2 tsp salt

Begin to saute the bacon in the olive oil in a large cast-iron dutch oven. When the bacon fat begins to run, add the onion. On top, arrange the beef and cut lengthwise into thick pieces. Add the garlic and the bouquet garni. Heat the wine separately and pour over the beef. Let it come to a boil and continue cooking for about 3 to 4 minutes. Add about the same amount of water or stock and bring to a boil again. Add the salt. Place the dutch oven in a 300-degree oven and cook the beef for about 3 hours. Serve with potatoes. (No need to thicken or reduce the juices in the pan. They'll be delicious as is.). Serves about six people.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

14 DECEMBER 2005

Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death. It’s a number, a passage of time, about which I feel not dissimilarly from my attitude toward my weight—it doesn’t reflect how I feel. These things—grief and thoughts about one’s weight—exist outside of chronology and physical space in a psychic world that has its own rules and realities. And yet, inhabiting time and a physical incarnation, we humans tend to try to force statistical quantification upon our psychic truths, as a way, I suppose, to contain what would otherwise be too wild, too unimaginable, and therefore too unmanageable for our everyday lives.

My mother bought a revolver in late September 2002. Just two and a half months later, on 14 December more or less, she lay down on her bed in her favorite pink nightie and pulled the trigger, bringing an end to many years of slow disintegration, both physical and psychological. We’re none of us sure precisely what drove her to end her life on that particular day, and over the last three years, I’ve arranged and rearranged what I know about my mother to come up with scenarios to explain her action.

What I am sure of is that she was a person less inclined than anyone I’ve ever known to contain and quantify psychic truth. She wanted her realities unmediated and in full measure; she sought out the unimaginable. Perhaps that’s why her suicide is so hard to swallow. Not because it is tragic and violent, but because it shines a light on my own inability to imagine it. In some ways, I admire my mother’s tremendous courage in ignoring rules and taboos and social strictures. Her capacity for imagination was boundless. Yet I also wonder at her inability to factor in the suffering she left in her wake; at the many ways she could break your heart. Mostly, and especially today, I simply miss her.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

(Miko, left, in his first week with us)

Our new cat, whom we originally called Melchizedik, has had a number of name changes since we first brought him home last week. He's Miko now, which means "king" or "deity" in Japanese. We came up with the name somewhat by accident, not knowing its meaning at first. When we discovered its regal significance, we knew we'd hit on something. Melchizedik is also a king, so this feline was meant to have his royal name. And Miko fits him. He's sure of himself, and like a lovely Japanese print of a single fruit blossom, has a calming stillness. Here are the other names we considered, if only briefly.

Melchizedik, or Meli for short--He was dubbed "Mel" at the Humane Society, and we thought it could have been a diminutive of the name of this grand, biblical king. But it was a little too grand for this cat, and Meli never rolled off the tongue very well.

Lou--Our friend Malina mentioned this as a name she'd rejected for her cat. But it made us smile because it reminded us of a favorite character in a Woody Allen movie about a third-rate, has-been lounge singer by that name who's two-timing on his wife with a mobster's mol named Tina Musante. He makes it big at the end, and he has a big heart all along. My father wasn't so crazy about the name, so he added "Baby" afterward. Lou Baby.

Tiger Lily--This was the name that the neighborhood kids gave Miko, when they thought he was a girl. We considered keeping the name, but he's not as tough as the name implies.

Jack--A simple one-syllable name that SJG and one of my coworkers loved. But Miko's not a one-syllable cat.

Pinky--For Miko's pink nose, ears, and foot pads. This only lasted only a few minutes, though we liked the connection to "Adam's Rib," one of our favorite movies. " ' Pinky' ...with a "y" for him, "ie" for me," says Kate Hepburn to the judge, after she and Spencer Tracy have erupted into a spat, with private overtones, in the courtroom.

Karen Black--Another short-lived name, with resonance all the same. Miko is slightly cross-eyed from a certain angle, just like this marvelous campy actress from the 1970s. A good friend and his boyfriend are Karen Black groupies. They went to Massachusetts not too long ago for a Karen Black one-woman show. She was on the same plane when they flew home, and they got to introduce themselves to their idol.

Baby--For his sweet-tempered nature, and because it struck us as a name a Southerner like Truman Capote might give to a pet

Kiki--For the Greek owner of a Greek grocery store we frequent. This didn't stick either.

Mister--"Mister Mister" rolled right off the tongue, but we kept thinking of the rotten character by this name in "The Color Purple" so it didn't last.

And finally Miko, which is sticking and seems to fit. He's started to look up when I call out "Miko," so I think he's got his name.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


He’s been watching us since April, from his perch on the neighbor’s small balcony, from the other side of the fence surrounding our yard, from the driveway across the way. We’ve seen him chasing rodents, catching birds, and hunkering under the eaves to stay out of the rain. One bitterly cold morning last month, SJG saw him running across the street. It was 4:30 AM.

It’s been a now-and-again affair. Days and weeks have passed without a sighting, and then he’s back for several days in a row. By this summer, the neighborhood had all become aware of him, and emails flew back and forth about his vicious nature—chasing away ducks from backyard ponds, fighting with other cats, keeping birds away from feeders. But I always sensed a gentler side. Gracie next door—she’s eight years old—is in agreement. She gave him a name--Tiger Lily--thinking he was a girl.

Once, this summer, I approached very slowly, cooing in low tones, and he let me pet his smooth white fur. Another afternoon on a damp fall day, I saw him crouching under a low bush in the back garden. I put an entire can of tuna on a plate on the ground a few paces from him, retreated, and watched him gobble up the treat. But I hadn’t seen him since I left for Paris at the end of September. SJG wakes up in the night worrying about him. We leave the side door of our garage open, in case he comes our way again.

The night before Thanksgiving, I dreamt that I had him in my arms, while SJG kept our brown poodle Buddy at a safe distance. And then, the day after Thanksgiving, Buddy began a particular kind of insistent barking that usually means there’s a squirrel on the window box at the front of the house. SJG looked out the window, and there was Tiger Lily, meowing from the porch steps next door.

Tuna is a seductive lure for felines. I offered him a little container of it, talked to him in low tones, and after he’d eaten it all, gently lifted him up and into the crate SJG had waiting. He’s been to the Humane Society for a physical and other tests to make sure he’s healthy, and he’s now sound asleep in my study on the thick fleece shawl my mother gave me for Christmas years ago. We’re calling him Melchizedek, or Meli for short, after the biblical king “without father, without mother, without descent.” He came to us out of nowhere, lodged in our dreams, and will hopefully become part of our family.