I have spent large chunks of my day reading letters that my mom wrote to my grandmother. They mostly date from the early years of my parents’ marriage, but some go as far back as late fifties. Those are primarily requests for clothes, pistachio nuts and woolen pajamas that my mom wrote from Camp Wonderland in Buckingham, PA.
About a week ago, I flung myself in a cleaning/purging binge. I’ve got a mountain of bags sitting in my living room, waiting to be taken to the thriftstore across the street. I’ve said goodbye to nearly all of my grandmother’s handbags that I was still holding on to. And I decided it was time to go through those last two boxes that were tucked onto the top shelf of my closet (which was once my grandmother’s). These are the boxes that have yielded this treasure trove.
In addition to the letters from my mom, I’ve discovered a few photographs I’d never before seen of my mom’s family when they were all young and lovely, some cool bits of memorabilia that represent my dad’s younger years (a poster for a concert he performed on March 15, 1975 at UC Santa Cruz) and a cluster of letters that my uncle sent home from Vietnam.
The letters have been this fascinating peek into my mom’s younger self. It’s been totally compelling to read them as a collection, to get an opportunity to have a voice that is both familiar and foreign wend it’s way into my brain. I’ve called her at least four times today, each time because I’ve found a letter that I want to share with her (even though she was the one who originally wrote it). She made a comment during our last phone call about how she never realized when she was writing these letters (many of which she doesn’t even remember) that in a sense she was as much writing them for me as she had for her mother.
I feel sort of sad that my children won’t have the same opportunity to read my letters as I’ve had to read these belonging to my mom. In some small way, I hope that this blog stands in for my lack of correspondence (although chances are that my google account will outlive me and they’ll be able to read all my tedious little emails). Having read all these letters today, I sat down tonight and wrote a short note to my mom, feeling like I should give something back for all the entertainment I’ve enjoyed today.
I took my car to my mechanic this morning and as I handed my keys over felt a profound sense of peace begin to erode the tension I’ve been carrying around. It was relief born out of the fact that the next time I get into my car, no matter how much money I have to give Troy in order to get my keys back, my raggedy 15-year-old Subaru will be safe and reliable for a while again.
I parked my car on the street last night as opposed to its normal nocturnal resting place in the parking garage. I did this in part as incentive to get out of bed a few minutes before 8 am (it’s amazing how the threat of a parking ticket can jolt me out of bed when most other things, say my thesis for instance, have very little power to roust me). I also left the car there because it woke up Saturday morning with starter issues and I was a little afraid that if I left it with the garage guys it might stop starting altogether.
However, when I called my mechanic this morning to let him know I was heading over, his answering machine said he was on vacation. Thankfully he gets back tomorrow, so I’ll be heading out again in the morning to deliver the car to him. I’m very lucky in that I have a mechanic who I have found to be really trustworthy and reliable. The only problem with him is that his shop is in sort of a sketchy section of Germantown. When I go there I am typically the only white person around. This doesn’t make me nervous, but I am very aware of how out of place I appear.
I will be really glad to turn my car over to Troy for a day or two, because this bout of car trouble rattled me. Normally when I experience car issues I miss my parents, mostly because my dad spent some years working as a mechanic and so is typically able to fix the smaller issues. This time the missing of them was really acute, and made me feel alone and without anyone in the world who I could call for help if something were to happen. I realize that this isn’t a rational feeling. I have many friends, multiple cousins and even several acquaintances who would come to my aid if I called and was in need. But there’s nothing like immediate family for people who will help without expectation or explanation. And on occasion I really miss having that particular resource at hand.
I have a lot of wonderful friends who are gifted and talented in many ways. I know people who can fix computers, create recipes from scratch, code websites, play instruments, twirl batons, raise children and remodel houses. But, for all these fantastic people, there is one type of friend I don’t have, and I am keenly aware of their absence. You see, I don’t know a single person who has a fruit tree in their yard, and these days, as we head into the final hurrah of the summer growing season, I feel this void acutely*.
Until I moved to Philly, I always knew people with fruit trees. Sometimes we even had them (my family spent four years living in a house that had once been owned by a botanist. There were some amazing lilac bushes, a gorgeous non-stinky ginko and a small cluster of apple and pear trees at the very back of the property). There was always someone who would call up to invite us over to pick pears or say, “would you mind if I left a grocery bag full of plums on your front porch?”
When I was young and we still lived in Los Angeles, we have several plum trees in the side and back yards. I would often take a little wicker basket with a handle that could be looped over my arm out and pick the plums. I would wash a couple of them in the water from the hose (pretending that it had actually been a pump) and plunk down under a tree to eat my harvest. I felt safe in those moments, pleased on every level, including the instinctual ones that I had been able to gather my food.
There is something about being given an abundance of ripe fruit that makes me feel wealthy beyond measure. It satisfies some deep part of me, leftover from a past life or implanted through years of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder (have you read Farmer Boy? The food descriptions in it are amazing), that still believes I live on a farm and need to ‘put things up’ in order to get through winter. This would be the same part of me that loves to cook with sugar and butter and enjoys putting together a meal of roasted meat and lots of starches so that the men will have enough energy to finish the work in the fields. I realize it’s irrational, but it pleases me nonetheless.
*Please don’t take this post as me begging for people to give me fruit (although, if you happen to have a surplus of some delicious thing in want of a home, I wouldn’t say no).
I’m in the midst of writing my masters thesis right now. It’s a rambling collection of essays about one of my great loves, cooking paraphernalia. I’ve always been attracted to the tools of cooking, even before I was allowed to turn the stove on by myself. When I was seven, my grandmother gave me a little baking kit for kids, that including a mini rolling pin, a toaster oven-sized cookie sheet, several small tart pans and a full-sized wooden spoon. I carried that wooden spoon with me everywhere, always begging my mom to let me stir whatever was on the stove with it. Occasionally she let me, as long as I let her scrub it with the rough side of the sponge first. I still have the spoon, it’s now one of many in the crock in the kitchen.
When I was 20-years-old, I came to Philly for a semester in the big city. It was a break from dorm living and the responsibility of being an RA. I rented an apartment in Queen Village with two other girls from my program and we set about creating a little temporary home for ourselves in that two-bedroom apartment (I slept in the dining room). Just around that time, my cousin Angie was giving up her house at the shore and needed to find a home for much of the kitchen equipment that had stocked the house. Much of what I acquired from her then was once a part of my great-aunt Doris’s kitchen collection. It was all old, scarred and carried (figurative) layers of food memory. I was in heaven. I kept nearly everything she gave me, shipping it back out to Oregon when my semester in Philly was up and then sending it back out to Philadelphia a year and a half later when I moved here for good. Nearly everyday now, in the course of cooking my meals, I use something that once belonged to Aunt Doris. I never fail to be pleased by that.
My mom is an expert in the field of laundry. Some may mock her skill and dedication, but if you have ever had the opportunity to benefit from her careful sorting, eagle-eyed application of spot remover and precise folding, you will quickly change your tune to one of appreciation.
I learned to do laundry by watching her (clean clothes were the drug of choice in my family)*, and while my style isn’t quite as scrupulous as hers, to this day I am the only one in the family whose folding measures up to her standards. One of the tenets of my mother’s laws of laundry is that you should always fold your clothes as soon as the dryer cycle is finished, as you’ll rarely have to iron this way. However, this does mean that you can only do laundry if you know you’re going to be home when the cycle is complete.
The last few days, I have been in direct violation of my mother’s laundry ordinances. Sunday night, I took a load of laundry out of the dryer and let it sit in the basket. I left it there overnight, as the clothes wrinkled and creased (I never used to be able to do this. Even if I was dead tired, I’d fold that laundry before going to sleep).
Monday morning I unloaded all the laundry onto my bed, thinking that it would motivate me to fold it, but when it came time to go sleep, I tossed everything back in the basket. Tonight I couldn’t take it anymore and I threw that wrinkled, mashed load of laundry (which was actually slightly diminished because I’ve also been dressing out of the basket for the last couple of days) back into the dryer with a wet washcloth, in order to undo the damage I had done by leaving it crunched in a wicker basket for days. I also ran another load tonight, so I now have plenty of clean, unwrinkled, folded clothes (in a very limited rainbow of colors).
*Remember those anti-drug ads where the kid tells his parent that he “learned to smoke dope by watching you”?
For those of you who haven’t seen this yet, I offer you a short clip of how Scott and I spent a chunk of Saturday afternoon. We sat on Scott’s stoop, out in front of all passersby on Pine Street and proceeded to make minor fools of ourselves. The things we do for you people!Oh, and if you happen to be longing for the days when I wrote about food in this space, I want to remind you to walk yourself over to Slashfood and read me there. I tend to have between three and five posts go up a day over there, so there is always plenty of my ramblings to go around.
When my apartment was initially fitted out back in 1965, the builders installed a revolutionary and space saving device. It was a combination washer/dryer that could take a load of laundry from dirty to clean within the confines of a single unit. It was an amazing appliance for a kitchen like mine, where space is at a premium. It was just an added bonus that it happened to be turquoise, like the old countertops and stove (I do believe that back in the day, the original refrigerator also featured that particular hue).
That washer/dryer combo unit ran semi-reliably for more than twenty years, but when it broke down for good sometime in the late 1980s, it had to be replaced with a washer and a dryer. They stopped making those combo units sometime in the 1970s, as they didn’t actually wash or dry well. But my kitchen was not designed for both appliances and so it was reconfigured a little to make it work, blocking off the second door that led from the entrance of the apartment into the kitchen.
When they installed the dryer in that corner, they didn’t think much about a countertop to go above it, laying down an ill-fitting piece of stain-prone white formica. I have lived with that slab of ugly laminate countertop for more than five years now. Sometime around late 2003, I started thinking about replacing it. I did a little research at Ikea and discovered that they sold lengths of counter. But I took no action.
Then about two weeks ago, I started thinking about new countertops again and this time I wasn’t able to dismiss the thought. I took myself to Ikea and bought a chunk of counter. I brought it home and propped it up next to the front door, as there was still another hurdle to leap over. It was 7 5/8 inches too long for the space. I have a very nice drill, but no saw. One of the maintenance guys in my building said he’d cut it down for me, but then never stopped by when he said he would. Another one offered, but he creeps me out, so I decided not to take him up on his offer.
This afternoon, my countertop and I took a Sunday drive out to Plymouth Meeting, where the very handy Donald, an almost-cousin, went through four different rechargeable batteries, cutting my counter down to size with a circular saw. I brought it back home tonight and it slid into the spot without a hitch (I did measure about nine times before taking to Don). I gave the counter got a nice massage with some mineral oil and I now experience a joyful giddiness every time I walk into my kitchen.
Things are pretty quiet ’round these parts. I spend most of the talking through my fingers as opposed to using my voice. I’m a little boggled by the speed at which time is passing, my fall class starts two weeks from yesterday and my first thesis deadline is a week after that.
Yesterday I was walking home from a particularly peaceful meditation practice when a man sitting on the sidewalk made eye contact with me. He looked sort of dirty and was shaking a paper cup at passersby. When he caught me gaze, he raised his cup towards me hopefully. I smiled first and then said, “I’m really sorry, but I can’t.” His face broke out into a huge grin and he sort of ducked his head as if he was a little embarrassed and said, “Oh, it’s okay. You have a good night.” There was something so loving and genuine about the interaction that it kept me grinning for hours after.
I don’t know why so much of what I write tends to be about positive interactions with strangers, particularly ones who I encounter when they ask me for money, but there is something about choosing to be kind when it isn’t always the most obvious action, that really resonates with me.