Food and Memory, a Friend’s Story

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Now, those of you who have been following along here, or who know me nearly at all, know that I am in the throes of a novel that is based, among other things, on memories of family and food.

So in that vein, I am thrilled to share the latest post on Thousand Bites of Bread, written by a dear friend of mine, Claudia Savage. It is a touching story of her mother, and of making bread, and oh so much more – you can find it here and I strongly suggest you settle in for a few heartfelt minutes of stunning writing.

The lyricism in Claudia’s writing comes from her being a poet – a published, award-winning, kick-ass poet, by the way – oh and a fabulous teacher besides. And mother to a most intense and creative little girl (no surprise there).

There is nothing like good writing. It is inspiring and enlarging to read. Claudia always makes me want to write more and better. The latest essay is but one example of that amazing quality.

 

One Dish at a Time (excerpt): Fireflies

(It is the first of the month, and so here is another excerpt from the novel-in-process – this time a fond childhood memory of the book’s antagonist.)

Fireflies or lightning bugs light up a meadow in Arkansas during the spring.

There must have been a million fireflies. Dancing dots and flashes of light in the dark, some blinking slow, some fast. Swimming through the deep blue-washed night, they made Alice think of music. She felt like she could almost hear the music, sweet and rhythmic, with different instruments for the different speeds of blinking. Sort of like her “Peter and the Wolf” record, with different instruments for the different characters.  Maybe she would grow up and compose a Firefly Symphony.  She started humming in time to their movement.

Well okay, she couldn’t actually count to a million, but she thought there must be at least a million of them. Maybe two. Or, maybe there were only a million, and their reflection in the pond made it seem like two million (this, one of the wonderful illusions that came with the warm summer evenings of childhood).

Her father had asked Alice if she wanted to catch some and put them in a jar for a while, so she could see them up close. “Could I?”she asked with delight, amazed that such a thing would be possible, like catching magic and holding it fast with a canning jar lid. He had smiled at her expression, and said sure you can do that. You just have to be sure to keep them for only a little while, and then let them go back to their homes.

He had brought everything they needed: From a back pocket of his khakis he produced a flashlight with a piece of blue paper taped to the lens so it cast a light blue light. “It’s so we don’t disturb them, so they don’t think our flashlight is the biggest firefly they’ve ever seen and get scared and fly away,” he told her. He had a jar with a piece of wet paper towel inside – “because they like air that’s not too dry. It’s why they like to be out here in the summertime when it’s so humid, right?” Alice had nodded, not sure she completely understood, but had wanted to impress him with her knowledge and understanding of such important, worldly matters. He said he would hold the flashlight and the jar. He demonstrated the arm movement, easy and gentle so as not to hurt the insects, then solemnly handed her the small net with the long handle (Like a wand, Alice thought. I am Queen of the Fireflies!).

They went off into the middle of the field, and he told her to stand still for a minute, “let them get used to you being here.” She barely breathed. Slowly, like the movement of water, the twinkling gradually surrounded them and twirling of what now she was certain was at least a million fireflies. It was like standing in the sky among the stars, Alice thought. It was like the fairies in the movie Fantasia that they all went to see the summer she turned six, only this was way better, like being in the movie. Alice forgot about the plan to capture a few of them, until she felt her father’s hand softly on her shoulder. She looked up at him and smiled, then got her net ready.

firelies in a jar on a dark background

Alice went into the house, holding the jar with its tiny blinking lights out in front of her with both hands, eyes wide. She didn’t see the smile that her parents exchanged over the top of her head. Bea came running from the kitchen, where she had been helping their mother make dinner, eager to see Alice’s treasure. The sisters took off for their room, to look at the captive insects with the lights out so to see them better, followed by the sound of their father’s laughter and their mother’s call that dinner would be ready soon.

* * *

Alice missed fireflies, living in Hawaii. She had read somewhere they had tried to introduce them at one point, for some reason or another that seemed logical at the time, but the environment wasn’t conducive and the experiment failed. You can’t always just put something (or someone) where you want it to be. Not that she would dream of moving back to Minnesota – not for them, or for anything else, for that matter. Alice wondered if there were fireflies in Seattle. She doubted it. The lights of the city were so many and bright that, even if the insects were there, would obliterate the firefly’s blinking like they probably did the twinkling of the stars. Alice looked up from where she sat on her porch. Above her was suspended an assortment of constellations that she recognized by sight, if not by name. Here on the quieter side of the Big Island, one could still see stars, at least more than were ever possible in the lights of Honolulu. She loved the verve of the city, though she tended to stay closer to home in the height of the tourist season. It was a decent trade-off for living here in paradise. No Minnesota winters. Shorts or short skirts, tee shirts and flip-flops almost all year round, if she wanted. Mosquitos followed her here from the Midwest, true, but not in great numbers. No, she was certain the benefits of living here far outweighed the brief wonder of firefly season back home. Still, she smiled at the memory and faintly wished she could have a firefly summer evening again, just once.

Latest Excerpt from “One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table”

Reserved II

     In the spirit of staying true to my intention to regularly post excerpts from the novel-in-progress, here is this month’s offering. I hope you are intrigued.

Bea brought the pale green towel down from drying her face and paused, considering her reflection in the mirror; thinking how odd it was that no one ever gets to see their own face, but others could view it, could stare at it as long as they liked, taking that fact for granted.

Your only view was from inside it. For the exterior, one was limited to photographs and this backward mirror image. How could it be? Nothing closer to you than your own skin, but never getting to actually see your own face, not ever. You could look down at your hands, your feet, your knobby knees, and there they were, live and in real-time. But not your face.

How much was the reflection in the mirror like a mask you wore?  And if so, where was the real you and who really gets to see it?

Bea frowned and her reflection frowned back. “Where did all that come from?” She wondered. “Middle of the night musings agitated by spicy food too soon before bedtime – philosophy driven by a slight case of heartburn?” Probably it came from all her recent thinking about the nature of Truth, about some of the people in her life and who the hell were they, really?  A mother, dead all these years, who had held a wound and secret alone and close in her heart nearly all the way to her grave, and not shared with Bea; a sister who she had thought was a whole-sister but turns out was only a half-sister (and is that a matter of blood and DNA, anyway, determining who gets to be “whole” and who gets to be “half?”); a father who had been absent most of her life and was now dropping back inside the frame of the picture – but only briefly – as it turns out, just as a cameo appearance before moving back into the turnstile out of her life. Out of life itself, in fact.  Bea felt sure she knew Peter well, but she felt the queasy wavering of doubt. What did she know to be true, after all, even about her husband? And who was she, for that matter? Could she trust a face that she never really got to see with her own eyes?  Bea closed her eyes and shook her head slightly, trying to stop this Möbius strip of thought, but without much success.

People identify who they are, their place in the family, by who they look like, right? Bea contemplated who was present in her features: She peered intently, turning her face slightly left, and then right (or right and then left, depending on how you wanted to look at it). Her thick chestnut hair was definitely her mother’s; likewise the pale color and somewhat dry texture of her skin. Her height and her general build – tall, slender except for a tendency toward heaviness in the hips if left to their own devices – were also her mother’s. Her blue-gray eyes and slightly too-large nose came from her father (though only known through photographs, Bea made a point to note). She shared her maternal grandmother’s name – but also her hands, Bea suddenly realized. They were not her mother’s hands; they had skipped a generation and became hers instead. She held up her hands in the mirror, palms facing her, and gazed at them through the distance of the mirror to make sure. Yes, there it was – she hadn’t ever quite seen it before – how had she missed it? Fingers long, slender but strong. Hands slightly larger than average. Not yet as wrinkled as she remembered her grandmother’s, but hers unmistakably. A duplicate of the hands Bea had grown up watching kneading bread, stirring sauces, tying roasts, peeling potatoes. Bea was suddenly washed over with happiness. Giddy almost, like she had just been given a gift. She had loved watching her grandmother’s hands, and it felt like through them a part of her was still alive in Bea.

Could knowledge be transmitted and carried forward in such a way? If so, what was Bea’s responsibility to her grandmother, if anything? Had her grandmother entrusted her with those indispensable tools for cooking? Was she obliged to use the gift, fully and completely, to the best of her ability?

Her grandmother had smiled at Bea when she’d heard about Bea’s wanting to go to culinary school – something Bea had not yet told anyone else – the summer between high school and college, while they were sitting together on the cool, shady porch, shelling peas into matching bright yellow bowls (had Bea really held that dream for so long?). It was one of the last times she had seen her grandmother, whose eyesight was failing gradually and the rest of her fading away more quickly. She had just celebrated her 90th birthday, and it was uncertain whether or not she would see ninety-one (she fooled them all and lived another three and a half years, dying peacefully one windy autumn afternoon in her sleep).

Bea remembered those last few visits vividly, all the more so for knowing they were numbered: The smells of spring lilacs and old age; chicken soup and eucalyptus ointment. Nearer the end, Bea trying to fill the empty, unknown silent spaces with talk – about college, trips to the lake, things she had been cooking –  almost desperately trying to bring the world to her grandmother, who was by then steadily withdrawing from it. Her hands, that Bea remembered still so clearly as active and precise in their movements, now lying still on the soft blue cotton blanket.