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Friday, October 30, 2009

The Edge

Charles has been dead three years, soon, and all my knives are dull.

When Fred came to visit with his family, I bought a beautiful roast of beef - something I do not do very often. He trained as a butcher and he loved these big cuts of beef, slowly, barely cooked, with rosemary and garlic pushed in. I was sure he was not getting such things in Iraq, and that he would appreciate that I remembered his preference.

I even had a chat with the butcher at the grocery store when I was picking it out, something else I do not do often. I wanted the butcher to pick out a really pretty roast, something another butcher would like. These cinematic moments only ever roll out in my mind so I don't know why I keep trying - black and white film clips clattered through the projector in my brain, calendar leaves flying, me - finally morphed into an odd melange of Ma Kettle grasping a flag to her chest and Aunt Bea in an apron holding a pie, adoring family paying homage to my efforts, local butcher presenting a huge hunk of flesh into a light from above and saying "Your soldier will appreciate this, Ma'am!"

At least I was expecting this at Wegmans' - a cut above - but instead, the young man (who apparently does not share my rich mental catalog of iconic images) merely pointed to the second one in, a three bone in rib roast, and said "That one looks good." and reached for the waxed paper.

My oven is broken, the heating element at the bottom blown out during a period of dank depression when I might have left it on all night or maybe for a day or two. Maybe a week. The oven that broke was not the oven I ever wanted: it was cheap, from the scratch and dent store and was supposed to make do until we had the money for the kitchen renovation. That money was going to appear shortly after every other single thing in our lives was taken care of. All oven type activities now take place in a stand alone, plug in roaster, which is pitch hitting for the oven I never wanted, until I get the stove I deserve and that is where I put the roast when I get home. But lately I have been thinking, maybe not. Maybe I will have a kitchen but not a kitchen, because after the kids move into the addition, am I going to do any real baking? As opposed to fake baking? I hardly use the roaster. Maybe I don't want a fancy oven any more.

Which makes me wonder if it is sad or happy that I may be giving up the idea of a dream kitchen, which was the fuel for terrible arguments and intense middle of the night cravings, and the hook that I hung all my martyrdom and justifications on. If I never, ever get a six thousand dollar dual fuel, self cleaning convection oven and a stove with a built in griddle down the middle, and I make that decision on my own, based on practicality and present need, if I give up that dream, that tightly held desire, which I have picked all the scabs off and used as my red badge of courage, the lack of which was the visualization of just how truly my needs and wants have been denied, who the heck am I?

And who am I having this argument with now?

Soon the roast is done, and I rest it for half an hour. I have heard that this is the single biggest mistake that home cooks make, not resting their meat. You see, you get your roast chicken or leg of lamb or roast of beef out of the oven, cover it all over with foil, and let it sit for a half hour before you cut. This way the juices stay in and don't run out all over your cutting board. I am a great, knowledgeable cook. I have created wonderful, memorable meals for multitudes of people in a terrible kitchen for thirty years. Lasagna, meringues, steamed shrimp and stir fry, roasts and pot roasts, jars of tomato sauce and jam, pickled green beans and red beet eggs, thanksgiving turkeys and chicken and dumplings, lamb rolled in rosemary and pepper, chocolate cookies and lemon sponge cakes, home made pasta, countless loaves of bread. The SOUP! The nameless mishmashes of leftovers that turned out to be delicious. I have done all this, I realize, in a kitchen that has two cabinets whose lowest shelf is 18 inches over my head, a sixty year old stainless steel sink, exactly three feet of counter space, no dishwasher, 1/2 inch to spare if you open the fridge and the oven at the same time, missing floor tiles and exposed plumbing traces to the second floor the cat uses to chase mice. My kitchen counter had little flecks of gold sparkle in it when it was installed after WW2, which you can only see now if you move the canisters. Not to mention seven doorways and two windows. All of these conditions grist for resentment and seething, stewing discontent and the springboard for imaginative problem solving and VOILA moments. For instance, if you don't have enough counter space, you get a cutting board that fits over your sink - that adds two feet. And one that fits over the top of your stove - when the stove is off, that is another two feet or so. If you don't have a dishwasher and company is coming before the dishes get done, put them in the oven til the next morning. In the winter, you can keep your extra groceries on the back porch - it's cold enough. If you keep the stuff under your sink organized in plastic tubs, it is really easy to get them out fast when the pipes freeze and burst.

And now, possessing the where with all to make all those headaches and compromises go away, I suddenly am not sure I care any more. I can buy that stove, I can have all new cabinets, I can have anything I really want, the way I want it.

I pull the carving knife and fork out of the block to carve the rested meat. Instead of the elegant slice I am expecting, I end up sawing and mangling. The roast falls apart in delicious but ugly chunks. Very embarassing because by this time Fred is watching me and I feel exposed and pathetic. The knives are all dull. I don't know where the steel is and I don't know how to use it. Charles used to stand in the kitchen and expertly flick the knives back and forth and listen to me bitch about how terrible the kitchen was. He used to say, Stop cutting directly on the counter, you are going to ruin this knife. I would retort, I can't hurt this crappy counter and I am going to get better knives! And then we would sit down and eat a fine meal and later that night I would go to sleep, feeling sorry for myself and what I had to put up with. He honed the knives and I sharpened my resentment for decades. And now I know it takes just three years for both to lose their edge.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Whoopie Bridge

A fine fall afternoon, a Saturday, I am sure. The top is down on the little blue Fiat Spider and I've loaded my son Mike and two golden retrievers into the jump seat. Everybody is excited to be going for a ride. We are getting ice cream.

The sky is blue, the trees are gold and the car is biting the wind like it is a crisp apple. We round a corner and I position the rearview mirror so I can see my happy son.

Downshifting, I pick up speed and the asphalt sings. Why isn't every car a convertible, I think. Two sets of ears flapping, my son's parka flying out behind him and my hair standing straight up with only about 400 feet to go, our speed is exactly 44 mph. The next moment, we are flying over the bridge, leaving the ground. I look in the rearview mirror and my son is holding on to the dogs' collars and they are in the air, off the seat and he yells WHOOPEE!

A thousand light years later, I get a phone call from that same son and he says, “Don't go straight down 82. The Whoopee bridge is closed. A big chunk of the bridge fell into the creek, probably from the thaw and freeze cycle working on the mortar.” He's a fireman, so he was among the first to know. Fortunately this all happened while no one was on the bridge but it does mean a detour.

I hate detours. This will be a daily thorn in my side for months, maybe years, I just know it. It's not like you can just take a right go down a block and there you are. There are five different ways to go around the bridge, all about six miles inconvenient. They are curving, narrow roads and I am not looking forward to all the hurried people careening around on them and cursing like me. Explaining the features and benefits of each route to visitors for a long period of time is going to be irritating. The whole thing just sets me off.

Everyday I sit in the driveway and ponder – This way? That way? I always end up making what turns out to be the wrong choice, stuck behind a tractor, or one morning, an actual gaggle of geese in no hurry to get anywhere, except down the middle of the road. Watching those geese I did sort of have a moment of OH COME ON, a acknowledgement that this is not the worst commute in the world. That was short lived. On the way home, more often than not I miss the turn that I would take for the first detour choice and end up driving more miles out of the way, just when I am cranky and tired. The itty bitty committee in my head just loves getting ten extra minutes alone with me to discuss my failings and inattention.

Each day when I am getting ready for work, I completely forget about the detour and how it adds precious minutes to my trip, and I end up making a lot of apologetic phone calls and exaggerating how much of an ordeal this is for me, mostly an effort to foist onto something other than myself an explanation for my lateness. Of course, after a while, my excuses and complaining are patiently endured but not really believed, and the conversations start to turn to “Just when do you think the bridge will be fixed?” Although I don't really have any idea, I say three months to three years, and the recipient of the call gives me much undeserved sympathy for how this is ruining my life, and I feel better.

The situation with the bridge does cut the traffic in front of our house by half, not a small thing when you consider that our old house is exactly 22 feet off a two lane state highway used by noisy gravel and trash trucks. They are now in front of someone else's house, slamming on the jake brake and jarring them out of bed in the morning. The guy who owns the ice cream store puts out his own custom detour signs, hoping that the baseball teams and camp councilors who swell his business during the summer will be able to find him. And his marque is how I learn, one afternoon, that the bridge is open again. GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE IS NOW OPEN! LARGE TUNA HOAGIE 5 DOLLARS! All good news.

See, I say to myself. It all worked out. I head out to work, driving in a straight line, which makes me happy, no thoughts of detours or excuses tormenting me. I approach the bridge at exactly 44 miles an hour. I wait for the whoopee.

And I get two.
Two mini whoopees.


Where the old whoopee was a sharp, sudden jolt that sent you off the ground in a fine arch and placed you back down with a chirp of your tires, this new whoopee is like two little hiccups. Shaken, I pull over and drive back over, to try it again. Yes. Where there was one big one, there are now two.

I do it a third time, experience double mini whoopees, pull over to the side of the road, squint into a field of purple asters and ponder.

While I am fighting the disturbing idea that I might be the only person in the cosmos who would be moved to tears by an altered whoopee, it occurs to me that a bridge being out makes some things happen, other things not happen. Like the geese, like the trucks, like countless other things that were said or done or dreamed because the bridge was out, or not.

About two weeks after the bridge is fixed, I get an email from Fred.
Email : fred@yahoo.com
Comments : HI shirley I am not good at this computer thing. I am in IRAQ fighting this war .I am very proud of you!I am very sorry to hear about Chuck. I miss you both love Fred please email back

Well, that's good, because for years, I thought he might be dead.

Fred came to live with us when he was a teenager, as part of a program for building community and independent living for children who had been raised in institutional foster homes. There was nothing wrong with Fred – he was bright, he was handsome, he had no physical or mental impairments. He just got caught in the system when the courts were not happy about terminating parental rights, and he was unadoptable for many years. By the time he was in his mid teens, he had not really lived in a family home or a town. The group home he lived in was clean, the social workers were kind. He went everywhere in a bus. People whose job it was made his dental appointments and had his eyes examined. They brought him clothes. They made sure he celebrated holidays and had a gift. They made sure he went to school. But even the social workers felt this was not enough for kids – the state turned them out at 18 and they had no understanding of any other life, and no ties to any community. They didn't know how to get jobs, and they didn't know how to make friends.

When Charles and I heard about this from a friend, we thought it would be a great idea to add to our family this way. I never thought of myself as someone who would only have one child, but that was what had happened. Our son needed family, this kid needed family, we didn't feel we had to have a baby, so Fred was our perfect choice.

And life rolled on. We weren't perfect, Fred wasn't perfect. He will tell you so himself. I called him my boomerang child because he came and went so many times. He liberated himself from everyone (legally) at 17 ½ and came and went some more. There were fights, there were tears, there were ultimatums and pleadings – on both sides. And then one day I realized I hadn't heard from him in a year. And then Charles died and I didn't know how to get in touch with him to tell him.

But I guess someone had, somewhere – told him about Charles. But how was it possible he was in Iraq? Of course I emailed him back, and then there was a phone call, and we got caught up on things. And then he tells me he is coming home on leave and wants to come out to the farm, bring his wife and daughter.

Of course!

I ask him if he needs directions and he says NO, he will always remember how to get to the farm. I am secretly glad I don't have to explain the detour. He will come home over the bridge, just with two mini whoopees instead of one.

The first thing he says to me is “Are you still wearing that apron?” and I feel loved, that he should notice this. I show him the addition, tell him about Mike and his family moving on to the farm and while we stand on the porch and watch the chickens run around I ask, “Is it the same or different – how does it feel for you that Charles isn't here?” And he says, “Yes, it's the same and different.” I know what he means.

Fred puts on his hat and his uniform shirt and we take pictures: Fred and Mike, Fred and Mike and the Grandchildren, Fred and I. I put them up on Facebook, announcing Fred is Home From Iraq and that I am glad the family is all together again. Suddenly people are blessing me and our family for our sacrifice. They are asking who this other son is? These blessings shame me and overwhelm me, because to explain why I don't feel we should be blessed is such a long story, so many times back and forth over a bridge.

I don't deserve them. I have not sacrificed anything for him or the country, not for a long long time - decades. I did not even know he had joined the service til two weeks ago. I didn't even know he could, at 43. I also feel that long ago, we could have made a different choice and adopted him, instead of leaving him in limbo. He is my son, but not my son. Maybe that would have made a difference to him and what he did with his life. I don't know why I worry - He is calm, mature, determined--together. He's done fine.

Sometimes a bridge goes out and you take detours and because of that, different things happen. The availability of a bridge gives direction to your journey. You will always wonder if you went the right direction. If the bridge breaks down, it can be fixed, but there are no guarantees that when you go back over it will be the same.