Sadness and Joy (and Gin and Tonic)

My mother Jan enjoyed raising a glass at festive occasions.

In my family we tend to divide up the sad part of commemorating a death from the joyful part.

A few weeks after my mother Jan’s death in December we held a brief memorial service at our church. A number of people offered to speak at the service. My brother and limited the program, however. We wanted to give everyone—and most of all ourselves—a chance to say a dignified goodbye so that we could move on to grieving, to adjusting to life without her, before talking too much.

That was the sad portion of our official mourning—or perhaps I should say the sadder portion. No one could be very sad when thinking about my funny, happy mother. And saying goodbye to a 93 year old is a lot less tragic than saying goodbye to a 33 year old or a 63 year old, even if everyone DID expect her to live to be 100.

The official joyful part of our mourning will come in just under two weeks, on Saturday, July 7, at 12:30 in the afternoon. We are giving a pot-luck memorial party. (Some of our neighbors are calling the event Jan Day.)

My mother wasn’t Jewish, but she approved of the Jewish tradition of burying someone within 24 hours, having a little quiet family time, and then waiting until the unveiling of the grave a year later to remember the dead extensively.

We’re only six months out now—and we won’t be unveiling a tombstone at the party because Jan’s daughter keeps forgetting to order one. (I’m sure Freud would have something to say about that.)

We do have enough distance from her death, however, to enable us to laugh a lot more than we cry at the party.

People keep asking me about our plans for the party.

WE HAVE NO PLANS.

My mother never planned parties. She just assembled good people and good food and let nature take its course.

So that’s our plan … if you can call it a plan. We’ll have wine and soda and maybe rhubarb tea … and a little bourbon and gin and tonic to appease the relatives who consider those a must at a party (as did my mother)…

And tea sandwiches and tandoori chicken and ice cream sundaes and whatever people bring to the feast.

We’ll tell funny stories and sing songs she adored in her youth. I’m looking for the music to “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” She frequently told me that she sang this song constantly for a month—with great bravado—in 1940 or so when a boy named Dean Woodruff dumped her. (She was usually the dumper rather than the dumpee so his defection made her feel particularly melodramatic.)

Mostly we’ll enjoy our lovely Hawley hills and each other’s company, particularly the company of her two surviving siblings, even if her baby sister does drive us all a little crazy. (That’s who my aunt is, and we love her.)

We’ll make new memories that day, I’m sure.

We still laugh when we remember my neighbor Florette’s drunken speech at my father’s memorial party. I THINK it was about men with whom she had had affairs at different points in his life, but it was a bit incoherent. Another neighbor finally grabbed Florette and pulled her out of the spotlight.

And we fondly recall my cousin Pat’s speculation that my father was participating in the festivities in the form of a particularly busy butterfly. (I didn’t entirely buy this story—my father was a little too noisy to come back as a butterfly, in my opinion—but it was a lovely thought.)

And we’ll find satisfaction in knowing that life goes on, richer because of the objects, the foods, and especially the people my mother loved.

Father’s Day

My father, probably in the mid to late 1970s. I think EVERYONE should have a black and white portrait taken by Bachrach. It’s definitely posed–but it definitely looks like him!

I promise not to meditate on every single holiday we come across. I’m sure my readers are busy feting fathers today and may not have time to read or comment! But … after church today–in which we celebrated fathers past, present, and future; biological and spiritual–our minister Cara said to me, “You had a pretty special father yourself, didn’t you?” And I had to agree that I did.

My father Abe came from a family that didn’t speak English at home when he was small; he, his parents, and his brother and sister came to the United States from Poland when he was 22 months old.

Abe grew up feeling like an outsider in American culture. He wasn’t a bitter outsider, however; he was a curious outsider. That curiosity garnered him many friends and nurtured his greatest professional strength: his ability to make often unexpected connections between disparate people and ideas.

His family was matriarchal, headed first by his maternal grandmother and upon her death by his mother. So he grew up expecting women to be smart and to run things, an expectation that made him a joy to deal with both at home and in the workplace.

He was fun and funny and gentle and told whimsical stories that delighted adults and children alike. I wish I could say I have figured out how to emulate his charm. It combined humor (which I have) and an ability to talk off the cuff (which heaven knows I have) with something I simply can’t definite or identify or replicate.

Thinking about him also leads me to recall other father figures in my life. There are fewer of these than there were mother figures to conjure up on Mother’s Day; like my father, I grew up in a matriarchy. I was lucky enough to have several wonderful men in my life when I was young, however.

I love to spend time with my mother’s brother Bruce, who just celebrated his 91st birthday with great fanfare. Uncle Bruce loves to play the patriarch, a tendency that occasionally gave me inappropriate giggles when I was younger. Nevertheless, he is a patriarch with an enormous heart. When my mother and I met him for lunch almost exactly a year ago I noticed that she couldn’t help smiling when she looked at him. I know exactly how she felt.

The Siblings enjoying each other’s company in July 2011

Today I also remember my friend Buddy, who made New York City even more exciting and who honored me by treating me like a second daughter both in the city and in the country. Buddy embodied so much joy and spirit that if my family was stuck entertaining one of my father’s more staid colleagues we’d invite him and his wife Bobbie over as well. With Buddy sitting at the table and at the piano, a boring dinner party was transformed into a festive night to remember.

I think about my neighbor Harrison, who never had any children of his own but who sheltered, informed, and praised all his nieces and nephews (including honorary nieces and nephews like my brother and me). Harry was the only person I have ever known who could whumsle (simultaneous whistling and humming—in harmony!). It was an honor to hear him launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” on special occasions.

And I smile whenever I think of my Uncle Jack, another honorary uncle. He and my mother decided when they were in their 20s that they must have been siblings separated at a very young age since they were both loud and funny and smart (and both WASPs, unlike their spouses).

Most of all, I think about my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather was a sweet but mysterious figure who unlike my father felt overwhelmed by the matriarchy in which they lived; I can only recall him speaking more than a word or two at Passover, when he read from the Haggadah. Despite his silence we knew he loved us deeply.

My mother’s father was a much louder presence in my life. He was quite elderly by the time I came along and had little patience for small children. He often made the tiny Tinky furious by silencing her with a glance or a few choice words. Nevertheless, he was a warm man at heart.

One day at my grandmother’s house in Vermont the impatience and the warmth intersected.

Some imagined infraction on the part of my brother David, my cousin Tommy, and me launched our grandfather into a tirade. We youngsters retreated from the house into the yard, smoldering with resentment.

We decided that the time had come to assassinate the old man. The boys formulated a plan by which I was to distract Grandpa and lure him to an open area in which they could shoot him with their bow-and-arrow set.

(In retrospect I think I should probably have nixed this plan since as the distracter I was probably in danger from the bows and arrows as well, but my peril wasn’t obvious to me then. In retrospect I also realize that it’s pretty difficult to kill someone with rubber-tipped arrows. But I was only five at the time.)

Before we could put our plan into place, our grandfather called us into the house, gave us big hugs, and reinstated himself in our good graces. We decided to let him live. His rages (and ours) were happily short lived.

This week I once again rejoiced that we spared him. By chance I came across the letter he wrote my mother, his eldest child, on her 21st birthday in 1939. Here is a bit of the advice he shared with his “Punkins”:

Sir Isaac Newton was a dreamer. If he hadn’t been the falling apple wouldn’t have inspired him to think. The trick is to dream and be practical too. The great lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers, philosophers, for the most part have been great because of their ability to translate their dreams to practical application.

I hope that like my mother I can take these words to heart and combine a romantic spirit with a core of common sense. I’m grateful for the wisdom of my grandfather, my father, and all the nurturing men in my life.

If you have a chance, please remember someone special in the comments below. Happy Father’s Day!

My Grandparents in the early 1960s. We were always happy to see my grandfather smile!

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Klutz in the Kitchen

I find American food holidays vastly entertaining. I like to imagine a kitchen somewhere in the bowels of Washington, D.C., in which culinary experts sit around a big table … or maybe a work island … and devise these holidays.

I understand some of them. National Oatmeal Month (oatmeal needs more than just one day, I guess) was cooked up (pun intended) by Quaker Oats.

Naming March 17 Corned Beef and Cabbage Day was only natural since that boiled dinner is traditional Saint Patrick’s Day fare.

And calling December 24 National Egg Nog Day fits in perfectly with holiday-party menus.

But … I have NO IDEA why National Doughnut Day is in early June. (June is too warm to be a true doughnut month.)

And scheduling National Blueberry Pancake Day in January doesn’t make sense to me at all, unless one is living in the southern hemisphere. My family eats blueberry pancakes in August when our local low-bush blueberries come into season.

If I were in charge of food holidays, I would definitely change those two, among others.

Unfortunately, if I were in charge of food holidays, I would never come up with today’s holiday, which is perfect for yours truly: Kitchen Klutzes of America Day.

In my house, every day could be Kitchen Klutz Day.

I have always been awkward, in the kitchen and elsewhere. Even when I’m wearing my largest apron food seeps onto my clothes. I can’t measure flour or sugar without spilling some on the counter.

And let’s not even discuss liquids! I literally had to learn not to cry over spilled milk as a child since I would have run out of tears if they had been my response to this pretty-much-daily occurrence.

Despite my klutziness, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and would hang out there all the time even if I didn’t write about food. I love to cook. I love to eat.

Over the years I have become enured to the messes I create in the kitchen. And I have developed mechanisms to cope with my klutziness. I clean up my spills as frequently as I can and schedule my messiest projects just before the amazingly patient and tolerant Vicky (who cleans for me) is due to arrive!

I drink out of plastic cups and dine off of melamine plates in large part because they resist breakage when they tumble to the floor. (I wish I could say that they are unbreakable, but in my experience NOTHING is completely unbreakable.)

And I emphasize taste over presentation in my culinary creations. Over the years I have learned to make my food look vaguely palatable, but I can’t say that I ever make beautiful food. I can say that my food is delicious, however.

How do I plan to celebrate this holiday? Perhaps fortunately, the only folks I’ll be cooking for today are my dog and cat, for whom I plan a little chicken soup with rice. (They love chicken!)

Any spills will be happily cleaned up by the recipients of the food. And we will all live to return to the kitchen another day.

If you have experienced a klutzy kitchen moment (your own or anyone else’s), please share it with other readers (and me!) in the comments section of this post.

And enjoy the day. Remember, tomorrow is National Strawberry Shortcake Day!

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This Girl’s Notes on “That Girl”

I have watched several episodes of That Girl (1966-1971) in the past week as research for my (extremely) forthcoming book of recipes from classic TV shows.

I realize that watching television may not exactly sound like work. Sometimes it feels like work, however. I viewed scores of episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for my doctoral dissertation—no easy task. Ozzie’s insecurities and Babbitt-isms can wear on a person very quickly.

That Girl was a lot easier to watch–but challenging in its own way.

As older viewers and Netflix addicts may recall, That Girl followed the adventures of Ann Marie, an aspiring young actress striking out on her own in New York City.

Marlo Thomas, who served as the producer of the show as well as its star, apparently originally wanted to name the series Miss Independence. Her father, entertainer Danny Thomas, had often applied this nickname to his eldest child.

In later years Marlo Thomas made claims for her show that were perhaps a little farfetched. “’That Girl’ threw the hand grenade into the bunker and everybody else got to walk through,” she told a fan website in 2010, making it sound as though Ann Marie was television’s first and most important single female protagonist.

She wasn’t. She was one of the most memorable and most assertive female characters of her era, however. Ann is a social creature who experiences her life and career in partnership with her boyfriend, Donald Hollinger (Ted Bessell), and her loving but slightly disapproving parents, Lew and Helen (Lew Parker and Rosemary DeCamp).

Thomas and Ted Bessell

Nevertheless, she is financially independent of all three—and although she cares about their opinions she charts her own path. She is often outspoken, although always charmingly so.

Watching this character cavort through New York City this past week has made me want to BE Ann Marie.

Certainly, I’d love to have her postitive attitude, not to mention her plain old gumption. I have wanted to live in New York all my life but never believed that I could make enough money to go out and rent an apartment there. In the pilot Ann just packs her bags, gets on a train, and starts living in the city.

I’d also love to have her figure and wardrobe. True to type, Ann is a slender and attractive creature, with extraordinarily chic clothes.

I haven’t seen this episode so I have NO IDEA what a turkey is doing with Ann Marie. But her dress is predictably fab.

Her bright, mod wardrobe embodies ABC’s move away from black-and-white broadcasting; when That Girl debuted the network had been showing most of its programs in color for only a very short time.

Ann Marie’s eyes have eyelashes that, in my friend Alice’s words, resemble the business end of yard rakes. These enormous fringed eyes seem to take in everything that New York and life have to offer. Ann is a positive and joyful figure, trying, in the words of Marlo Thomas, “to get a bite out of life.”

The part of me that wants to be Ann Marie also knows that facets of her identity may be slightly disturbing for me as a feminist.

First, her job is acting (a career to which I aspired when I was little and watching reruns of That Girl), hardly a ground-breaking line of work for a female.

Second, her extreme adorability could be a problem for a person who wants the world to take her seriously. Often Ann gets her way not because her arguments are strongest but because she is so darn cute that people in power can’t resist her.

I love getting my way, and I even enjoy being cute. I’m not sure that being cute should be my preferred path to success, however.

Finally, I’m a little bothered by Ann’s ethnic identity … or lack thereof. Her truly lovely face–with its big eyes, tiny nose, and huge smile—and her fetching flip hairstyle (the show was underwritten by Clairol) are bland yet hugely appealing; it’s easy for any girl to identify with Ann and her perspective.

But … Marlo Thomas was her Lebanese-American father and Italian-American mother’s daughter. Pictures of the young Marlo show a nose that was definitely prominent, although it couldn’t quite compete with her father’s famed beak.

Two Thomases

That young Marlo is striking. She’s ethnic. She’s not drop dead gorgeous according to popular standards, however, not the Marlo of later years. She’s not “That Girl.” And so … clearly, somewhere along the way, her nose (at the very least) mutated.

Wanting to be Ann Marie, then, makes me a little nervous about the thought of abandoning my own sizeable nose and my own ethnic identity. And it makes me wonder whether Marlo Thomas, a noted feminist, ever doubted her own choices in recreating herself as Ann Marie.

I’d still love to live in New York. Maybe one of these days I’ll just get on that train and see what happens. I’ll try to be my own girl if and when I get there, however.

By the way, in case anyone was wondering what I’m planning to cook from this series, I’m taking my cue from the second season opener of That Girl, which aired in September 1967.

In it Ann Marie gets a walk-on part in a week-long revival of the musical Gypsy, starring the legendary Ethel Merman. In a silly but (yes!) cute plot twist, Ann and Donald end up inviting La Merm to dinner at Ann’s apartment—and Ethel herself volunteers to prepare her favorite dish, stuffed cabbage.

Hmm … Ethel Merman. Now, there’s someone who might be an interesting role model for this girl.

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