Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Great Consolidator

“Mary, You’re gonna go broke saving money.”  That’s what my Grandpa used to say to my Nana, riding her for the gallon jug of Breck shampoo overwhelming the corner of the shower stall.  I seem to recall though, that he was the one responsible for the cases of undrinkable, saccharine-sweetened No-Cal chocolate soda in the bottom of the coat closet. And now this is what my own mom says to me, thrusting an oversized jar of thyme in confrontation: “Maria, you’re gonna go broke saving money.  You know, spices lose their flavor if you hold onto them too long.”
The quart jar of thyme leaves is still ¾ full. So is the mustard powder.  Mustard powder, unlike prepared mustard, is sinus-clearing hot. I use it sparingly. I bought this jar six years ago at my favorite Pakistani deli. It has indeed lost flavor, but it’s still hot as hell.
The family has decided to divide and conquer for MLK weekend: Granddad and my older son to Texas to shoot at quail, husband and my younger son to Georgia to pick pecans from the cousins’ tree, and Mom has come to stay with me.
Three days together, what will we do?  You don’t get your nails done with mom. She doesn’t have nails; she works too hard. She is the least vain person I know.  It took great cajoling to get her to join me for a pedicure last summer, and for God’s sake, she has a swimming pool. She’s barefoot from May to October.  We think about the period rooms on the 4th floor of the Brooklyn Museum, but with her arthritic spine it’s hard for mom to get around the art museums and antique shops these days. It’s turning cold too. We stay close to home, and do home projects.
I have learned that it’s good domestic policy to line up projects for mom’s visits. Clearly my household invites organizational aggression and if, in my defense, I fail to pile up structured tasks like sandbags before tsunamis, mom will soon invade territories off-limits.  She will plunder my catch-all drawer, purging corks and medicine dispensers, twisty ties and duck sauce.  Admittedly, all this for my own good, but she will also, without asking, toss scraps of paper with essential numbers and talk me into recycling my rusting tea kettle, a move I will regret even before the next tea time.  Worst of all, she will bleach my coffee mug.
So I’ve been collecting unmatched socks for months, and now I dump the basket on the dining room table before her.  In mom’s mind, people and socks should all find mates.  Within ten minutes, the pile is reduced by half.  Now she’s stuck and turns on me: “You must have a lot of money to waste.” “No mom, why?” She waves a lone cashmere knee-hi.  “Some of these are expensive socks. You better look under the beds and find the mates.”  So she’s got me looking under mattresses and running half-loads of stray socks, just to generate a few more matches. 
Taming a riotous mob of argyles and tucking them paired, deep into drawers, is deeply satisfying, but Mom’s real theatre of war is the pantry.  She is boots on the ground in the snack shelf:  granola and fig bars squeezed into the same box, graham crackers and Rye Krisps strong-armed side by side in a vintage Saltines tin.  To conquer the spice rack, she has me bring up baby food jars from the basement and mashes cumin, Krazy Salt, paprika, clove, and yes, the mustard powder into a delicioso Mexican pork rub.
I was a teen when I dubbed her “the Great Consolidator.”  Her effects were first felt in the pantry, where she secretly combined half boxes of Total and Special K, Corn Flakes and whatever. You never knew what you were getting when you shook that box of cereal: woven pillows of wheat, balls of corn, puffs of rice. It was mom’s own Chex Party Mix in every bowl.  She graduated to syrups and dried fruits. You’d reach for a handful of raisins and get Craisins and instead of maple syrup, a maple/honey/Karo pancake blend.  
 Nothing was as it appeared in the icebox either.  True fat content was rarely reflected on the milk carton; a glass of skim would taste more like 2%.  Mom thought nothing of combining quarts of skim, low-fat and whole, much to the annoyance of waistline-watching Dad.  
Today, deployed in a corner of my kitchen, a fortress of Barilla boxes before her, I wonder “What does she get out of this?”  To be of joyful service to her children has always been her aim. Her crippled hands can’t open cans or peel potatoes anymore, but they can still top off the Aunt Jemima mix with a scant cup of Bisquik, they can reduce clutter, simplify my life  -- and that is something.
But the food frontier inspires more than a raid and subjugation of my shelves. Suddenly, Mom’s eyes sparkle: “Let’s make soup.” She turns in her armor for an artist’s smock.  The Great Consolidator is morphing into the Kandinski of the Kitchen, the Seurat of the Stovetop. The fact is, it’s a supremely creative act to throw wide the cupboard doors and make a meal from what you find… and mom is, above all, a supremely creative person.  Cooking from the pantry. It’s a game with only one rule: you’re not allowed to run out and buy a missing ingredient.  Substitutions, however, are welcome and encouraged. Not only a colossus of consolidation, Mom is the world’s best at making do: powdered milk for fresh, green onions for red, til everything is used up. That’s how to win at this game: use it all up.  “You’ve got a lot of black beans,” she observes. Black bean soup it is.   Fifteen minutes later the stock pot is bubbling and mom is adjusting to taste.  Again, her caramel eyes flash:  “Got any open salsa in the fridge?” I rifle through the door compartments of my Amana. I do! A good 1/3 of a jar of Ortega, medium heat salsa. She dumps it in.  What else?”  I pull out a styrofoam clamshell of leftover basmati rice from the Gyro King. In it goes.
Tomorrow, after breakfast, I will set her up in front of her Sunday morning political shows and hop in the shower. She will grow restless with the roundtable on “Meet the Press” and when I return, I will find my kitchen sink full of brown banana leaves. She will have pruned all my houseplants.
For now though, I stand behind her, our tummies tight with black beans, rubbing her neck while she plays solitaire. “Stop playing cards mom, and just enjoy this.” “We were very productive today, weren’t we?”  “Yes Mom, we were.” “Good enough to keep the board of health away anyway.  And wait til we hit that refrigerator tomorrow…”
The Great Consolidator’s Black Bean Soup
1 large can and 1 small can black beans (or 3 small cans, or 2 large cans, whatever you’ve got on hand, roughly  50 ounces total)
1 beef bouillon cube (or 1 T beef base, or 1 can of beef broth)
1 large yellow onion, chopped (or 1 red onion, or 3 green onions, or 2 T dried onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 T garlic paste, granulated garlic, or garlic powder)
2 cans V-8 cocktail (excellent way to address the largely un-drunk case from Costco) (or 1 can tomato juice or tomato sauce)
6 cups water
Mystery meat from the freezer. (What have you got? Frost-bitten smoked turkey wings? Perfect. A ham bone or salt pork? Great. Breakfast sausage or bacon will do in a pinch.)
1/3 cup EVOO (or not-so-virginal olive oil, or an oil blend like olive and canola)
1 green pepper, chopped (if you don’t have a pepper withering in the crisper, don’t sweat it.)
2 stalks celery, plus tops, chopped  (I freeze celery tops for soups)
1 carrot, chopped
 up to ½ cup jarred salsa (optional, but does add a certain je ne sais quoi)
generous pinches of thyme and oregano (fresh or dried)
chopped fresh cilantro  (the finishing touch, but remember, if you don’t have it, it’s cheating to run out for some)
Boil up the water with the bouillon cube, V-8 juice, vegetables, turkey wings or ham bone and spices. Add EVOO and salsa. Simmer for a good half hour. Add beans and rice last.  Adjust seasoning to taste.  Remove meat from pot. Remove meat from bones and return meat only to pot.  
Garnish with cilantro.  You can top with croutons you’ve made from stale bread too.

Bonus Recipe!
The Great Consolidator’s Granola
8 cups old-fashioned oats (No substitutes here. DON’T use quick or instant oats)
2 cups nuts (any will do: walnuts/pecans/almonds/hazelnuts/macadamia/cashew/brazil)
½ cup light-tasting oil (old cookbooks call this “salad oil” canola,/corn/soybean/grapeseed/coconut etc..)
½ cup honey
¼ cup maple syrup (if you don’t have honey, use more syrup, and vice-versa)
1 cup flaked coconut (optional. So if you don’t have it, don’t sweat it.)
Stir all together and bake in a 300F oven for 1-1 ½  hours, stirring every 15 minutes.
Remove from oven and stir in any combo of dried fruit totaling 2 cups:
Raisins/cranberries/slivered apricots/blueberries/cherries/prunes/figs
Do not return to oven.
Stir gently, allow to cool and pack in air-tight containers.  Lasts a good while.
Enjoy over yogurt, cottage cheese, oatmeal, or ice cream, or with milk, or alone!

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Maternal Instinct

 “Instinct,” per, is: “an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action common to a given biological species.”
 “Maternal” from my son’s Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, with the red burlap cover, because I still love the heft of a real dictionary, is: “characteristic of a mother, motherly.” Okay, but let’s dig deeper. Back online to, “maternal” Scroll down to related words: “…feminine, womanish, womanlike, womanly; matriarchal, matronly (ouch,) caring, giving, nurturing.”
Put it together. Maternal Instinct:  “feminine, caring, giving, nurturing pattern of activity common to a given species.”
True. Motherhood, when you fold back the cozy, pilled blanket of unconditional love, is defined by patterns of repeated, life-affirming activities common to all moms: shaking Cheerios into breakfast bowls, clipping tiny toenails, washing scalps and wasting Band-Aides on imagined boo-boos to stop the tears.
But what happens when the uncommon happens?  When nurture gives way to darker nature? When the maternal instinct is usurped by self -interest?
When my mother plants a goodbye kiss full-on my son’s mouth after Thanksgiving excess, she uses the same closer she’s always used with me: “Theodore, what does Nana always say?”  No reply.  The first cousin, standing by, pipes up: “I know, I know Nana: you would kill for us and you would die for us.” Way to go Nana.  Melding love and violence in a new generation of young minds. “That’s right!” she triumphs, “Nana would kill for you and she would die for you.”
My torso tingles with distant memory:  Mom, driving Sandy, our beige Volkswagen, stops short at an intersection and shoots her right arm across my chest so I don’t go through the windshield.  Never mind seat belts to do this job.  Or that head cold, so bad all food tastes like stale sugar cones, mom rubs my chest with Vicks Mentholated, covers it with a flannel rag and tucks the bedspread up under my chin.
Yes, put to the test, no doubt Nana would turn the dagger outward to pedophiles and peeping Toms, or inward, towards her apron-covered heart, but I can’t ever imagine Nana letting me win at Scrabble.  Maternal instinct has no place at the game table. My mom is an ace who makes words like “BEVEL” while I grasp at straws with “PINDER,” “WOOLIE” and “FUNGU.”  Thanksgiving night she is cunning as she sips Red Zinger and picks the first tile to see who goes first: “D.”  “All herbal tea taste the same,” she sighs.  I pick “L.” My eighteen-year-old nephew picks “R.”  Nana goes first.  “Nana is old, and tired, and didn’t sleep well last night.” Her strategy, referring to herself in the 3rd person, is to inspire pity, to disarm me, but I don’t fall for it. I play my hardest and refer to cheat sheets which offer “J” and “X” words, and solutions for what to do with the letter “Q” when you have no “U” to follow it. I pray for a spate of senior moments for Nana. Not tonight. Not ever. Her tiles click into place: “ADZE.” “S--,“ I think, “she’s played her Z.” I remember she did once give into a cheat sheet for a troublesome “Z” and came up with “ORZO,” 33 points. “What the hell is that?” I ask. “A kind of tool,” she replies. “My father taught me that one. He was a tool and die maker.”  ADZE, 34 points. Occasionally I hold my own, but not tonight, two hours later, drinking coffee that has sat too long on the warming coil. My nephew dropped out long ago. I make “HAIR,” only 7 points, but I’m hoping I’ve foiled her plans for the triple word square, 2 spaces beyond where hair ends. “Well, you just f—me up, “ she says, “but that’s what you’re supposed to do.” Indeed. But I didn’t. She tacks a “C” on the front end, which also happens to be a triple word square: “CHAIR,” 21 points. I stare at a rack of 1-point letters. I push myself: “NASAL,” 12 points, but I’ve made a fatal miscalculation and opened another path to a triple word. She draws the last tile from the velvet sack and capitalizes on my error, “PAGAN,” and pulls ahead to victory with this 24-point finale.  Final score: 267 to 158. “I’ve slaughtered you,” she says, rubbing her arthritic thumb, “and I don’t like to do that to my child.” Bullshit.  “I got some good letters towards the end.” She throws me this bone, trying to rekindle her correct maternal instinct. She’s prancing inside, no arthritis there. I watch her, animated, not-at-all tired, as she cleans up the board. “Just be thankful I’m functioning this well at 76.” I’m not. In our family, the winner cleans up. At least I’ve got that. It’s our best rule. The winner lingers and relives the mauling as she scoops up tiles, or slips playing cards back in their sleeve, while the losers skulk off to lick their lacerations…
But I am really no different playing Monopoly with my own boys.  I turn down opportunities to buy utilities or railroads. I hold out for Boardwalk. The blue-bannered card in hand, my son soon lands on Park Place. I flash a gold $500 bill, plus two hundreds and a blue fifty. $750. Double the asking price. He accepts my offer and by my next move I’ve put hotels up on both properties.  My nephew, in this game too, is pissed. Hey, I admit it. I’m no different from mothers around the animal kingdom— a mama rat or polar bear, a hamster or wattled jacana – just another mom, who devours her young.
Face It. I fantasize about filial infanticide in the bright morning hours. In that briefest of weekday windows between breakfast’s end and out the door, my immovable six-year-old wears me down with “Mommy, you are so mean, so mean, sooooo mean!!!”  I’m getting absolutely nowhere cooing “Use your words honey, would you like mommy to put on your socks, or would you like to do that yourself?”  “GO AWAY MOMMY! YOU ARE SOOOO MEAN!!!!”  Forgetting to breathe, I surrender decorum and throw self-esteem out that same window: “THAT’S RIGHT, MOMMY’S MEAN, SHE’S SOOOO MEAN, IN FACT, SHE’S A BITCH, MOMMY’S A REAL BITCH! BUT YOU STILL HAVE TO GET DRESSED!!”   Hitting is never an option. Cursing is not really an option either (but it is better than hitting.) My revenge? Gaming.
“Snowball fight, Brooklyn style! Moms against kids!” Three moms hurl ice balls over dumpsters. Three kids return fire from behind wet mattresses, sitting curbside for days.  I take full advantage of my superior height. I know it won’t last.  The heat of the day approaches and the snow is packing well now. Show no mercy. In the end, moms rule and kids retreat, red, raw and squealing for mercy.
In my daily patterns of activity—of sharpening pencils, squeezing Sparkle Fun toothpaste, and soothing nightmares where spiders descend from ceilings along invisible threads—it’s freeing to break with habit, to refrain from putting my children’s needs before mine, to do something, some little thing, counter-instinctual, non-nurturing, and yes, even violent.
Try it.  Allow yourself to forget their feelings for an hour and play to win.  Your pleasure in winning will come at a cost. You will have to wipe a few tears and pick up pieces of formative ego along with the knights and pawns. But you will notch up your own self-esteem enough to face another day boldly.  You will wake reenergized to dress your six-year-old for school. Isn’t that worth it?
“I would kill for you and I would die for you.”  Yes, Nana, you would. I would too, but let’s hope it never comes to that. 
Game on!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ice Capades

You are connected.  Your kids’ former sitter, now a beauty editor at People, gifts you with swag bags of Product—capital P intentional—Chanel, Clarins, Clinique. Your old boss at the hospital still remembers you with all-day passes to the Presbyterian Parking Garage. Those have come in handy when birthing babies and repairing broken ankles.  And today, a neighbor who chairs the Environment Committee at Community Board 14, snags tickets for you and the boys to test the ice at the 26-Acre LeFrak Center at Lakeside, one evening before it opens to the unwashed masses.  
You are unprepared for the elegant, open air plan, flowing into a frozen lake. Two connecting rinks, one covered lightly, like a carport, the other exposed to the stars. Your teenage memory of the Wollman Rink is a painful one: a splinter working its way under your watch plaid skate skirt and lodging in your behind. That memorable piece of pine, requiring mom, tweezers and humiliation to remove.  Yes, the old Robert Moses-era rink—wooden benches chopped up into splinters by kids balancing their blades to lace up.  The simple cement ring, like a drained city pool, and a towering loudspeaker piping in Olivia Newton-John.

You are cheered by innovations in ice skates, 3 clicks and you’re in.  It’s been forever, and actually, you spent much more time on pavement than ice, but you dismiss misgivings as both boys step on the ice and promptly reach for your hand. Each tugging you outward in opposite directions, surprisingly, you remain upright as you complete your first lap.   It’s slow going and your arms ache so you nudge them out of the nest.  “Let go!” you shout to the elder. He shuffle steps straight to the wall like a castaway reaching for driftwood. That’s something else you remember from Wollman, repeated here: kids clinging to the rink walls like cat hairs on cashmere; that, and the watery, commercial cocoa. 

“The wall only gives you a false sense of security,” you scold.  “You’ll never learn that way.”  He pushes off cautiously. “Stop taking choppy, baby steps. You’re not walking anymore. “ He isn’t, and neither are you. You take off, pointing out the long strides of patrolling teens in red polos.  There are no visible loud speakers, still, the high notes of Mary J. Blige sparkle the night air. You swivel your hips and suddenly, you’re moving in reverse. I’m searching for the real love.. someone to set my heart free Your son smiles: “Do a figure eight.” You oblige. It’s coming back. The roller skates with the lightning bolts on the ankles, and the English muffins on your ears pumping in The Gap Band and Rick James. 

Ice skating suits you – maybe not your trick knee – but certainly your character.  Human connection is made easy on ice. Gliding into and out of personal space, you clock fifty new encounters in under an hour.  A wallflower in a tiger hat with ear flaps reaching down to her knees, a photographer on the sidelines, a father leading his daughter over the ice in her Christmas coat.  And your sons, off the wall now, taking short strides, but strides nonetheless.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Shop Rite

Just how many unwashed grapes can you pick off the bagged bunch in the produce aisle before the pangs of conscience turn them sour to your tongue?  Five. You can safely eat five. Then it’s time to move onto the deli counter, where you can ask for samples of shaved havarti, in differing degrees of fat levels, and salt content, before deciding to go with the store muenster on sale.
You have to make this fun, because food shopping has become your life.  You do it daily, picking up a carton of blackberries from a fruit cart, or a gallon of milk at the corner deli.  But the real party comes with the big haul when you tuck the boys in bed, letting each add one item to the shopping list first. Nothing is off-limits. One of anything is not going to kill them.  Besides, giving them free rein has the surprising effect of encouraging better choices.  You dab on a little lip gloss, throw the canvas bags in the back of the KIA, crank WBLS, and tear off.  You take up two spaces in the basement lot because you can.  You test three carts before settling on one that steers straight and you roll through the magic doors.  The horn section on Prince’s track Glamorous Life heralds your entrance as a fine mist sprays the flat parsley and butter lettuce.  It’s a glittery ‘80s dance party on satellite radio this evening.  Not just the Material Girl, and Michael Jackson, but New Order, The Cure and Missing Persons too. Nobody walks in LA When did you last hear that one?
Fortunately, the Shop Rite is not a club with a cover and a bouncer to whisk the beautiful people past the velvet rope, leaving the rest to shiver in our party frocks.   It is everyone’s 24-hour discotheque, and taking a line from Slick Rick: “The freaks come out at night.” Lately, this includes one middle-aged mafioso with a relaxed middle in unclean running pants belting, and you mean belting, “Let’s Get Physical, Physical, I wanna get physical..” with a box of Life in one hand and Corn Chex in the other.  And it is a good Life isn’t it?  After exerting extreme self-control in riding the wave of hysterical laughter welling up inside you,—you don’t want to hurt his feelings—you realize you admire this dude.   He gets it.  He doesn’t give a damn what you or anyone else thinks.   He is having an unapologetic blast amidst the Corn Flakes and Cocoa Krispies.  He is one bad fruit loop against the tower of Fruit Loops at the end of the aisle.   
You have to make fun happen wherever you happen to be…
“Let me hear your body talk, your body talk…”

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Dip

“You’ve got something to prove,” her husband says.  She opens her mouth to object, then shuts it. He’s right. When a 48-year-old mama decides to join the crazies and jump in the waves at Coney Island on January 1— when up until now, she wouldn’t even touch her toe in the ocean before July 1—there’s something going on below the surface.
When she chooses a bikini with tassels over a classic black maillot, oils her body and drops and does 15 push-ups on the sand before hitting the water, she’s out to prove something, but what?  That she’s still young?  That’s stupid. She knows she’s not. That she feels young?  That’s closer to it, but she can’t do a full split anymore, or sit in the lotus position.  She can’t read recipes, or garment care labels, or the back of shampoo bottles without help from one of three pairs of glasses knocking about the house.
She doesn’t have a “bucket list” either – that would seem presumptuous to her– to tell the universe what adventures she expects it to sprinkle, like stardust, before she kicks, well, that bucket.
She just wants to take advantage of untasted opportunities that roll her way and won’t compromise her trick knee (skiing is out; ice-skating is approached cautiously.)  So when a friend, over a recent pork roast dinner, warm from red wine, boasts that he’s going for a swim at Coney on New Year’s Day, she offers to join him.  Besides, she has been hankering for a winter beach holiday and this one fits her budget.
There’s another reason too. She fears she’s making too traditional an impression on her nine-year-old son—because she does rock her domestic side.  She is the cookie-baking mom that Hillary Clinton once derided, the mom who throws end-of-school year ice-cream socials and hosts piƱata parties.   When she tosses out the idea that she’s thinking of joining the polar bears for regular Sunday afternoon dunks, he replies: “Why would you want to go to the beach in the winter? The rides aren’t even open. I want you to stay home Mom.”  Now she knows she really has to do this. That rigid, rational mindset must be challenged. 
So mother and son head for the Q-train on New Year’s morning, with the pork roast friend and his nine-year-old son too. The uneven sand, even through snow boots, offers welcome softness after asphalt. She peels off the layers, throws her towel at him and takes the plunge. Happy New Year!  The water is as packed with bathers as on the Fourth of July. The whiff of seawater brings back the summer of her youth, before it is quickly overtaken by the stench of second-hand smoke.  She skitters out of the surf and her son is there to wrap her up, shivering and triumphant.  She has no idea what he thinks.
On the subway home she can’t feel her extremities and she’s nodding off like an ‘80s junkie on Avenue D. It’s been a shock to the system.  “Get ready,” she tells herself, “there are more to come.”