Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nude Streaking, Radioactive Pot Roast & The (Almost) Perfect Omelet

Omelet on a mission
My mother dropped me off that morning at the new house. She said she'd be back soon with food, my books, my brother. She was in some kind of rush, so we hadn't eaten breakfast. Once again, she wore the raggedy jean jacket -- this time over a cheap pink turtleneck, Wranglers jeans, cowboy boots. So embarrassing. Other mothers wore dresses, aprons, had polished helmet hair. You know. They looked like mothers.
"Why do you wear that jacket all the time, Ma? And how come you have a gray streak in your hair?" I was stalling for time, I think, trying to make sure she remembered me when she left. My questions always irritated her. But today, she seemed cheerful. Suspiciously so. I wondered if she was meeting a man later.
"'You are old, Father William, the young man said, and your hair has become very white," my mother sang-recited in her lowest of low tones -- which was almost as low as the Uncola Nut man, whose molasses-smooth musical voice warmed me like a summer night. "'And yet you incessantly stand on your head. Do you think at your age it is right?' Lewis Carroll. Your mother is an old soul, Rachel. The hair is proof."
I just shook my head, but I smiled, too. Maybe helmet head moms didn't know Lewis Carroll. Maybe she would come back fast.

"Hurry up," I said, "'cuz I have to practice penmanship, and I have a test in social science tomorrow. Don't forget my books!"
"Don't be uptight. Stay inside, okay? I'll be right back."
Lou Reed, king of not uptight
She drove off in her battered green Ford pickup with the white & brown camper top, even though I'd requested she buy a pink Cadillac with fins. My mother never listened to me.
It was 1973. I was in fifth grade. Ten years old. Mrs. Livesey would not give me any higher than a B+, no matter how much I tried. She was built like a gray-haired ol' linebacker with piggy little eyes, her mouth always pursed in a thin don't-even-think-about-it line. None of my charms had any effect. So I practiced like mad, bore down on the letters so hard the notebook pages curled up. Things were desperate. The end of grading period approached. Another B+ would ruin my straight-A report card. I was considering creating a special hand-written illustrated book with made-up monsters for extra credit, just for Mrs. Livesey. But I needed my notebooks, sketchpad and 48 Magic Marvy Markers to pull it off.
I wandered around. The house was large, empty. Boring. Wood floors. Check. Fridge. Check. Windows. Check. Closets with nothing in them. Ho hum. Upstairs, beige carpet choked the floors. Ick. I wondered which room would be mine, leaned on a sill and pressed my face to the glass so it made a moist ghost face that disappeared as you watched. Then I kissed the glass with a loud smack. I wished I had a pair of those big red wax lips right now, so I could stare at people from the window and freak them out, then chew the lips up since they were edible. Or at least I thought they were.
The new house squatted on a tri-corner lot, one side of which looked out onto lazy pond water. I preferred the rhythmic chop of waves, white caps, more drama. Like over at Buzzards Bay, where my mother's family's summer house stood with its weather-beaten gray shingles, scaled like my dry shin skin. I heard something scraping, falling, and jumped. But it was probably just a twig or something dropping down the chimney.
Empty houses were weird. It was like they were waiting for something to happen. They each had their own personality. Some were more alive than others, more haunted. This one I couldn't get a read on except that it didn't feel welcoming. It wasn't so long ago I'd been terrified by the bottles stashed in the cupboard behind where I slept in another house we'd rented. I knew there were imps in there, curled up, with long nasty fingernails and bulging frog eyes. They slept during the day, then at night, I could hear them scrambling to get out of the bottles. I didn't sleep well at that house. When did we live there? I couldn't remember. I couldn't keep track of all the places we'd lived -- me, my mother, and my little brother Michael. Now I was older, and I knew there were no imps in bottles. I knew a lot of stuff, and I could deal with being alone in a house with no food, nothing to do. You throw it at me, I can handle it. I will survive, as Gloria Gaynor said. Any girl who could climb the rope to the top of the gym and do the most chin-ups in the Presidential Physical Fitness Award program was pretty much certified tough. In other words, I was scared out of my wits. I just couldn't afford to be.
After running up and down the stairs, then all through the house as fast I could, many times, switching off with staring out the window and counting doors and bathroom tiles, I went to the front door and considered my options. I could leave, but where would I go? I didn't have money. I didn't know the neighborhood. Maybe I could hang out in a restaurant and they'd give me something, like at Angelo's market where I stood watching the doughnut machine the whole time my mother was shopping, just inhaling the crazy good smell of fresh doughnuts, until the bakers broke down and gave me a plate of doughnut holes. "You sure love these doughnuts, don't you?" Thing is the door would be locked when I got back. Plus, I might miss my mother. And my homework.
Time passed. I don't know what else I did that day. Tried not to think about being hungry, drank water from the tap by sticking my head under the faucet. I know the sun kept sweeping across those vacant windows, sending stripes on different parts of the floor, like a slow hypnotizing, like Kaa did to Mowgli in The Jungle Book. The hunger held onto my stomach like tight fists, squeezing. The frown in my forehead dug deeper. I bit my lip until it bled. Then I imagined pounding my mother in the arm, or screaming "You left me!" until her eardrums shattered. People said my voice carried, that I had "projection." "Your voice goes through walls," said my homeroom teacher. Right then, I shouted all the dirty words I knew 'til the house shook. But when I stopped, the house settled right back into stupid stillness. The sky darkened while I kicked the walls and made an artistic series of black scuff marks. If you're an artist, anything is your canvas. Least that's what my mother said, when she used to drag me to those wacky street craft fairs in New York, where people set up dough sculptures, tie-dye vats and cloth art tunnels you could wriggle through.
I went upstairs to the room I'd decided was mine, shut the door, and tried to get comfortable lying on the carpet, pressed up tight as I could against the wall to stay warm. At least I could take a nap, rest up for the work I had to do, sleep through the hunger. But every time I shut my eyes, the anger shook through me. It felt like the shock I got once from touching an electric fence on a dare at the Nyman's horse stable. That was better than eating a cigarette though, in another game of Truth or Dare. I never backed down, but that time I go supersick and vomited all over the Nyman's daybed.
The truck rumbled up, ripping at the gravel. Maybe I did sleep because the truck woke me up. The keys scratched for some minutes at the lock, jiggling this way, then that, then this, then that again. I held myself in a rigid mummy pose. Hugged the wall with my back more closely. Finally the door banged open.
"Rachel!" my mother's voice sang out. "Yoo hoo! I made something special for you!"  I sprang up, but I was dizzy walking down the stairs. It was pitch dark behind my mother, who stood in the doorway of the new house, her hair frizzed out to the sides, her eyes glassy and wild under the fluorescent light. In her arms she held a white covered dish containing a bright orange meat and sauce.  Orange sauce glopped on her jacket in great gooey spots where the dish had sloshed. It looked radioactive.
"Look at this nice pot roast I made you!"

Fists clenched, scowling, scared and furious -- I hunched like I did in Bombardment before the coach blows the whistle in P.E. and people let loose with those red rubber balls that whine through the air and sting your whole body. I had to tell the truth. I didn't care what happened. I didn't even care if I got to eat. I was over it all. Dammit.
"Where were you? You left me here all day, Ma. I hate you. I hate you so much."

"Why you little bitch."
My mother came at me so fast, the dish dropped to the floor, a sickening wet crash, and...I know she grabbed my arms. I think she slapped me. Did she? I blank out. The smell of beer and wine and cigarette smoke filled the air. I remember that. My mother was strong, even though she had a limp from a long-ago horse-riding accident, even though her father was an orthopedic surgeon (why didn't he fix all the floating bones in her ankle so she didn't walk with a creepy limping step/slide?) and when she grasped my arms the skin felt like dough in the way of the bones she wanted to reach and snap in two. There was the sound of glass, the thwop of meat and gush of spilling sauce, and there was the sound of a slap. On my face. So hard my neck twisted back, the neck that was already stiff from sleeping on the floor. The cheek was now radioactive. Is this what happened? Was it worse? Were there blows? I can't remember. I don't want to remember. I don't know. I do know I backpedaled, wanting to stand my ground and be tough, a warrior, a Presidential Physical Fitness winner, but also wanting to run for my life once she lunged at me. Too late. The kitchen was small and I hadn't planned an escape, hadn't planned on saying what I said, hadn't thought. Too late. The rest of that night I don't remember at all.

We didn't live in that house long. Since my mother had a habit of picking up hit animals from the side of the road (we wrapped them in a dirty white sheet we kept in the truck tucked in with the many beer bottles rattling behind the bench seat) so we could either take them to the ASPCA or home to nurse (although sometimes it was my mother herself who hit and ran over animals, meaning pets, including my cat Daedalus, but that is another story) -- somehow we ended up with a goose and a possum in the basement of this house -- at the same time. What a noise. What a stink. It was the seventies, baby. Loose and free and psychedelic, geese in the basement, Sly and the Family Stone and Deep Purple on the record player, chianti in a basket, Bonne Bell bubblegum lip gloss, the birth of "check it out," streaking. I remember one time my friend Wanda and I tore off our clothes in the upstairs bedroom, drenched ourselves in Love's Baby Soft cologne mist and streaked through the house, right through the party my mother was throwing with Wanda's mother and some other friends, and how everyone laughed, and how beautiful all the rumpus was, and how delicious it felt to run naked through that house which felt like ours for the first time that night.
Years later, I drove by that house and it was burned to the ground. Only the foundation remained, charred black stones scattered in tall grass. And a few feet of busted-up blackened chimney. When I asked people what happened, they said a mother and her three children lived there. That the mother had left grease burning on the stove, that the stove had exploded, the house had caught on fire instantly, and that the mother and her three children had all perished.


Why did I tell you that story? I woke up, knowing I had to tell it. When you embark on a journey, when you choose a perspective (or rather, a perspective chooses you if you're lucky), you follow it. That's your job as a writer and as a seeker. So my impulse was to rush to the computer and type. Record this latest pit stop memory encountered on the road to healing through cooking. But I made a conscious decision to feed myself first. To honor my morning hunger, even though in the past I might've ignored it. 
And so I did. I prepared the smoothest omelet I've yet prepared. It was the third try. I used The Joy Of Cooking to guide me (the Firm Omelet recipe). Yesterday, I'd caramelized a large pan of onions (it took hours! The house, on its way to becoming a true home, smelled warm and caramelized itself). So I would add those to the mix. I had some leftover baby arugula from the Gina salad, some feta cheese from another recipe from the magical Chef Maili. This time, I knew to slide the pan around so the egg would cook evenly (Alexandra mentioned that tip when she came to dinner the other night!), and what do you know. It didn't burn. I was able to fold the omelet and jiggle it onto a plate. This simple feast emerged from my kitchen, my hands, untrained as they are?
I'm sharing these memories as they arise because it seems when you go on a journey, when you open yourself to a part of you that was suppressed for many many decades -- in this case, the nurturer, the one who cooks and feeds, the self-nourisher -- then what was blocking this part of you seems to come rushing in. And you must face those hoary old memories and scary tapes because though you thought they were over and done with, in their sneaky, subterranean way they have still been messing with your life and preventing your stepping into your full radiance (whatever that means!) Maybe full radioactivity, in the best sense. Fully alive. You get my drift. Or you can taste it.

I wish I could've shared the omelet with my mother. I wish we could've cooked together. I wish she had been able to feed me, feed herself. It is too late now, for that. 

But it's not too late to feed myself. 

If I can cook, anyone can.



  1. What an amazing post. You nourish me. So generous of you to write in a way that makes me feel like I'm flying even when you are exploring such a terrible memory. The imp really gave me a start when his eyes moved! Glad you had a fabulous omelet this AM. xo


    Yesterday, I'd caramelized a large pan of onions (it took hours! The house, on its way to becoming a true home, smelled warm and caramelized itself).

  3. It is a high wired trip you take me on and when we fall it is a carmelized and omelete-y landing. Thanks for this!

  4. Excellent ingredients, and I love what you've cooked up.

  5. i too, made omelettes this morning.
    being like you, a reluctant cook. i've learnt to make certain things well, but it gets boring. maybe you'll inspire me to explore. you've actually made me google how not to burn garlic! :)
    and those memories... i know them too. the ones that circle around the house like elliot's yellow fog, sometimes retreating, yet other times pouncing catlike, startling. though we're old enough now to protect those abandoned and abused little girls we once were. let nothing stop us from stepping into our full radiance. lots of love. ~s~

  6. I love the idea of all of us stepping into our full radiance. So be it. xoxo