Thursday, December 20, 2012


One of the artifacts from my years with Sherry, between 1970 and 1973, is a page of illuminated music manuscript. Another of our artifacts hasn't survived: a 3 x 5 card inscribed in Sherry's black-letter script that we posted in the refrigerator after I broke a glass shelf and replaced it with a piece of masonite: Res graves in plauteo inferno non ponete. Flexit. -- "Don't put heavy things on the bottom shelf. It bends." These two objects
exemplify the precious and rather pompous humor we went in for. We couldn't even plead callow youth as an excuse for this sort of thing. Sherry was in her late twenties; by the time we moved out, I was thirty.

I was studying Latin at the time and produced the out-of-wedlock text for the sign. The music manuscript was a product of my brief study of Medieval music. In a moment when there must have been something constructive I could have occupied myself with, I transcribed Take Me Out to the Ball Game into thirteenth century mensural notation. "Mensural" refers to the fact that that system of notation showed relative note values, in a crude and limited fashion. I used Take Me Out to the Ball Game instead of some other hokey tune because triple meter is much easier in thirteenth century notation than anything counted in twos.

Sherry was delighted with this exercise in arcane whimsy and produced an elegant illuminated manuscript, gold leaf and all. I framed it and it hung on our wall, and subsequently on various walls of mine. There was no place for it in Medford, so it was relegated to the attic. I wondered from time to time what changes were being wrought in it by the heat, thinking that, if anything, signs of age might befit it. There were plenty of things in the attic that were in more danger.

When it did turn up, it was in about the same condition as when it emerged from Sherry's pen and paintbrushes. Illuminated manuscripts are tougher than one might think: the Book of Kells has been fished out of water -- maybe even sea water -- any number of times, after the Vikings tossed it in or the monks hid it there. Take Me Out to the Ball Game has now been restored to public view, on the wall behind the piano.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Walking down Tremont Street in Boston one bright winter day with the temperature at something like ten degrees Fahrenheit, I reflected, "If it was always like this I might actually get some exercise." On a camping trip with my first husband, I rescued his fishing tackle when he was about to abandon hook, line and sinker rather than venture into the chill water of Lake Champlain.  In short, I resist cold better than heat.

My son went through a phase of fascination with battery-powered toy vehicles, mostly cars, although he aspired to a boat and an airplane. He never got around to the airplane, which is just as well, given his adventure with the boat. He bought it with money he got for his birthday. Dismayed as I often was with the use he made of funds that he came by in childhood, including the generous allowance I began issuing him when I got tired of being hit up for money, I stuck to my principles: He could do as he liked with his money as long as he stayed away from the hazardous, the illegal, and anything that would adversely affect someone else, especially me.

My sister came to watch us launch the boat onto the Otter River Pool. I think it puttered about some before it did a Titanic -- upset itself and sank -- a couple of feet from the shore. The battery case came open and dumped the batteries into the water, together with the top of the battery compartment.

We tried to fish the boat out with whatever was at hand. Maybe we didn't have anything long enough. Maybe the boat was caught on something, or positioned in such a way that it couldn't just be raked out. It became clear that the only way to rescue the boat was to get our hands on it, and the only way to do that was to wade into the water.

We weren't overwhelmed with volunteers. The Otter River Pool is locally famous for cold water in July. On this November day, an inch or so of ice made its lacy way along the shore. But we couldn't abandon Justin's birthday boat, and we shouldn't leave the batteries to corrode in the water. I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants and set forth. It was plenty cold, but retrieving the boat and locating the batteries didn't take long.

     Justin was grateful, and Paula was impressed. "Justin, you owe your mother," she said.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


C.S. Lewis says in his autobiography that he never could write the words "my father" without thinking of Tristram Shandy. He then comments that on consideration he was willing to let the reference stand.  My father didn't have much in common with either Lewis's father or Walter Shandy -- but like them, he had his own ideas and ways of doing things.  His approach to life was concrete and practical.  His idiosyncracies took the form of
projects, to which he was apt to assume that Mother would contribute time and energy as she was able.  She didn't always. She had plenty to do without that.

Dad loved kielbasa with horseradish sauce.  He didn't, mercifully, attempt to make kielbasa, at least not in my lifetime.  Mother reports that he had attempted sausage at some point in the far distant past, from a home-grown pig.  Dad liked to start his processes at the beginning.

On an agricultural impulse he undertook to grow horseradish in the hope that someone -- meaning, as usual, Mother -- would reduce it to sauce for use with kielbasa.  You can buy perfectly good horseradish sauce in a jar in the supermarket.  From Dad's perspective, that was beside the point.  (Have I ever mentioned my lifelong insistence on making pumpkin and lemon pies from, respectively, a pumpkin and a lemon or two, ignoring  Mother's lobbying for canned pumpkin and lemon pudding mix?)

Dad appropriated for his crop of, as he said, Hossradish a flower garden that had fallen into desuetude, a strip maybe a foot wide and twenty or so long.  The plants grew and flourished, uttering, like Walt Whitman's Louisiana live oak, joyous dark green leaves, and building thick white carrot- or parsnip-like roots.  Dad never quite got around to harvesting any for Mother's edification, and certainly no one else did.

The neglected horseradish throve happily on its own recognizance for several years, efficiently displacing anything that had previously lived in that garden or thought of moving in.  There was enough there to supply the Jewish population for miles around at Passover or any other occasion when bitter herbs are wanted.

The horseradish flourished below ground as well as above. As it reproduced and expanded, it made more roots with every passing season.  As much as a foot long, they twisted around each other in an inextricable tangle.  I have wondered if it would be possible to use horseradish as an underground fence for a vegetable garden against woodchucks and rabbits and other burrowing creatures.  No; they can burrow a lot deeper than that; but it warms the heart to picture some beast of the rodent type attempting to gnaw through it.

In the fall of 1984 I made up my mind that I would finally dig up some horseradish and try to figure out what to do with it. Tugging on the individual plants didn't impress them a bit; nor could they be dug out with a trowel.  I succeeded, after much labor, with a shovel and a pitchfork.  I'm not sure I didn't bend or break some tool in the process.

I took a cubic foot or so of convoluted roots and associated topsoil to my apartment in Bedford and dropped it all on the deck behind the house.  At my leisure, I attacked the whole clump with a hose; the dirt clung to the interior of the tangle and required a great deal of washing.  The consistency of these things was between that of a hard, woody old turnip and a soft pine tree.  I managed to dissect out enough root to grate and peel, hunted up a
recipe in The Joy of Cooking, and did the best I could.

I commissioned a ceramics-making friend to produce a small white pot with "Horseradish" emblazoned on the side for presentation, full of homemade horseradish sauce, to my father for his birthday.  He seemed pleased with it.  It didn't look like the kind that you buy did actually constitute Hossradish sauce as he understood it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


One of my all-time favorite cartoons shows a man seated at the dinner table, eating something with apparent disapproval; his wife stands beside him with a satisfied smirk; and behind him an older woman wearing an apron and holding a spoon looks around what must be the door to the kitchen.  Wife:  "That may not be the way your mother used to make it, but it's the way she makes it now!"  A wife can get really tired of hearing about how delicious her mother-in-law's preparation of something was, especially if it can't be reproduced.

I never got that from any of the guys I cooked for, partly because their mothers weren't stellar cooks.  My father wasn't into criticising anyone's cooking, and Mother wouldn't have taken such criticism well; but he did occasionally speak wistfully of a dessert his mother made called "blancmange."  In my teens I undertook to reproduce it and I was told by every cookbook I consulted that "blancmange" -- literally, "white food" -- was vanilla cornstarch pudding.  Packaged vanilla pudding, Jell-O and the like, are a feeble attempt to duplicate it.

Dad said the vanilla cornstarch pudding I made wasn't quite it. He maintained that his mother's blancmange somehow involved seaweed.  Mother took to referring to it as "seaweed pudding," in a tone that didn't convey enthusiasm for or belief in same.  Dad explained with a touch of impatience that it was not "seaweed pudding" but merely had something to do with seaweed.

I eventually tracked the seaweed issue to a substance called "agar":  "A gelatinous material prepared from certain marine algae and used . . . for thickening certain foods" (The American Heritage Dictionary), not to be confused with the agar found in apple juice some years ago that made such a stir.  Presumably, Dad's mother had a recipe that used agar instead of cornstarch to thicken vanilla pudding.  The substitution might result in a
somewhat different texture; I can't imagine that the flavor would be affected much, if at all.  Why would Dad have remembered this version of vanilla pudding fondly for the rest of his life?

Memories of youth often are highly colored, and probably nothing in middle age looks or sounds or tastes quite the way it did twenty or thirty years earlier.  Dad would have experienced his mother's blancmange under the influence of what Laurie -- notorious in childhood and adolescence for eating everything in sight -- termed the Hungry Horrors.  Probably the guy in the cartoon, and any number of real-world husbands, have had the same

For a while, my first husband kept requesting steak and kidney pie as he had encountered it in pubs while bicycling through England.  As described by my cookbook, it would have been a whole lot of work and probably wouldn't have passed muster.  A dish you've never seen yourself is always chancy, and cooking anything for Danny was an exercise in humility.  I said I would produce a steak and kidney pie if he would ride his bicycle to San Jose and back while I did so (about eighty miles).  As Cervantes observed, there's no sauce in the world like hunger.

Dad's mother may have had better ingredients than we did.  She would have used milk from her husband's dairy and eggs from their chickens, and perhaps vanilla in the form of beans (my mother bought fake vanilla extract from the First National, which in itself could explain the difference in flavor).  If there was butter involved, Mother's would have been margarine.  In Dad's youth, margarine didn't exist.

I never thought about the ingredients until this moment, nor did any of us at the time.  According to the 1950s gospel of Better Living Through Chemistry, the inexpensive substitutes being developed were at least the equivalent of butter, vanilla, fruit flavors, etc., if not better.  And Dad seemed so sure that the excellence of his mother's pudding had something to do with the seaweed thickener, that his account of it was generously seasoned with red herring.

Unfortunately, by the time the blancmange question came to the fore, Dad's mother wasn't available to tell us exactly how she made it.  My money would be on the difference in ingredients, especially vanilla.  But Dad also isn't available for comment, so I can't try it out.  The secret of my grandmother's blancmange has passed into the mists of history, never to be recovered.

Friday, August 3, 2012


      Somewhere between Otter River and Cape Cod one day at the
end of July, a bee flew in the open window -- in the 1950s, air
conditioned cars were few -- and landed on the seat between me
and Paula. I sat still, tightly controlled, knowing that frantic
swatting and whapping at a stinging insect would probably incite
it to defend itself. I maintained rigid calm even when the beast
crawled up the leg of my shorts.

     It soon crawled out again and went back to exploring the
seat of the car. At this point -- I can't imagine what took her
so long, unless she hadn't noticed the bee before -- Paula threw
one of her classic hissy fits. Nobody, then or since, throws a
hissier fit than Paula.

     Overstimulated by the tumult, the bee reacted after the
fashion of its kind; fleeing Paula's flailing and screaming, it
flew over and stung me.

     There's no justice in this world.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


     In the mid-1960s, the drive-in was still very much a part of the American scene. My friends and I scorned them, as we did many manifestations of American mass culture. We didn't have anything to drive anyway, until two of us bought a Lambretta in 1964. I understand that today people show up at the surviving drive-ins in and on a wide variety of vehicles, from bicycles on up. That never occurred to us, or possibly to anyone else in our day.

     Driving around with a friend one afternoon, we came upon the Fresh Pond drive-in, which, I am told, was on the site of the present Loewe's theater and the Fresh Pond Mall. I have an impression that on that occasion the drive-in was closed -- out of business, not just lying fallow until dusk.

     Being young and foolish, I made my way through some opening in the perimeter and drove around. I had been to drive-ins before, of course, but always at night and always with someone else driving. I had never noticed that they are built so as to raise the front wheels of the cars parked there, for a better view of the screen.

     We had a marvelous time bumping back and forth over this washboard/amphitheater, trying not to drag the underpinnings of the scooter or skid on the loose, gravel-y non-pavement. I was just getting good at whoop-de-doo-ing across these little hills and valleys when some proprietor-type appeared and ordered us off the premises.

     That afternoon may have been the most fun I ever had at the movies.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I bought the black Honda 90 at the end of March of 1970 from a young man in Framingham, telling him to hold off on depositing the check for a few days (in those days there were still pockets of trust in the world). Then I headed north and west to Templeton to borrow from my mother the money to cover the check.

It seemed like a pleasantly warm day when I got on the bus from Boston to Framingham. By the time I left Framingham it was around 3:30 PM, still warm but with something ominous in the air that reminded me that late March in Massachusetts is not summer, or even reliably spring. This Honda wasn't my first scooter. For half a dozen years I had experienced a rich education in the effects of wind chill; but the previous five years of living in California had blunted my respect for real cold. With the optimism of youth I set off hoping for the best, not that there was any alternative.

I had never been in Framingham before. I had a vague idea that it was on the way from Boston to Templeton. It isn't. I promptly got lost; I had no map. Long before I got to anything I recognized, night fell, fulfilling the promise of renewed winter. I hoped I wouldn't have much farther to go. I did.

I was wearing a dress. I didn't own pants at that time. I must have had gloves. I think I had some kind of light windbreaker, and a crash helmet as required by law. At some point, numb with cold, I stumbled upon a shopping mall; stumbled off the bike and into a clothing store, where I bought a pair of pants; and stumbled back to the bike, being stared at all along the way. I don't belong in suburbia - but that's another story.

Much, much later I stumbled on Route 31, which I knew eventually crossed Route 2. In subsequent years of motorcycling up and down Route 2 I learned that one of the places where the temperature suddenly drops is, in fact, at the junction with Route 31. My father confirmed from his days of plying between Templeton and Worcester on his motorcycle that Route 31 was where he well night froze. On that evening in late March, there was still snow in the woods beside the road.

When I pulled into my parents' yard -- on, as my father put it when the bike wouldn't start the next day, the last explosion -- I discovered that they weren't home and the house was locked. Thinking the people across the street might know where they were, I knocked on their door. "Mmmmm mmmmmmm mm prrnts," I said. The neighbor exclaimed, "My God, your face is all blue, come in and sit down." I had to brace my arms against the edge of the table to hold the cocoa she gave me.

I drove back to Boston the next day, in daylight, armed with Mother's check and a set of her thermal underwear, into the next thirty-odd years of open-vehicle wind chill.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


She doesn't really like fizzy water. When she sees Daddy drinking it she politely extends her arm, indicating that she would like some, please, and Daddy pours a bit into her mouth. She doesn't spit it out; but neither does she make much attempt to swallow it. With the oddest expression on her face -- not quite distaste but moving in that direction -- she allows most of it to roll forward onto her chin. But she keeps trying. Perhaps the fizzy water experience is intriguing, if not fully enjoyable. She may have a nonverbal concept that if Daddy likes this stuff there must be something about it that she's missing.

Herb Caen, in a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, described a small boy in Chinatown setting off firecrackers at Chinese New Year. The boy would light the fuse and then hide behind a car waiting for the cracker to go off. He obviously hated the noise and the suspense. Why, Caen asked, did he continue to do it? The only possible answer is that everyone he knew loved fireworks. He wanted to do what everyone else in his social sphere did, and learn to like it if he could.

I knew one person who claimed to have enjoyed his first cigarette. Most don't -- or beer, or wine, or anything of that kind either. The world is full of foods that it's hard to imagine that anybody could enjoy. I have heard that the Scots don't eat haggis because anybody likes it much, but for reasons of Tradition (as the song says).

Intriguing if not fully enjoyable describes my experience so far with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. We singers do our best with the angular lines and huge intervals, bristling with accidentals -- not really twelve-tone rows, but they look like it. We mutter or scream through a few sustained notes while the pianist does battle with the orchestra reduction. We listen to Stravinsky's trademark percussive rhythms, discovering that the strong beats don't always come at the barline. We struggle with dissonances and puzzle over entrance notes that are nowhere in the preceding couple of measures and have to be plucked out of the ether (or belatedly from the orchestra or, humiliatingly, from someone else in the chorus).

But some of the atonal-looking passages are beginning to resolve into not unattractive melodies. The orchestral romps are fun to listen to as some of the where's-my-note panic subsides. The long concluding passage, low in everybody's range over a couple of trombones playing in octaves and a dead march in the tympani, is coming to make sense, although it still makes me think of Cthulhu tromping in from the outer reaches of the solar system. (That's a story by Lovecraft; if you don't know it you don't need to; you don't need to know about twelve-tone rows either, for that matter.) Performing the piece with the orchestra may yet prove to be the magnificent and rewarding experience that the choir director insists it will be. For now, I will hang in there, musing that from fizzy water to Stravinsky, it's amazing what people will put themselves through because something rewarding may come of it.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Making cream puffs is one of my favorite metaphors for life: Every step of the way you'd think this can't possibly work, but somehow it all does.

You start by bringing a cup of water to an enthusiastic boil. You then dump in an equal amount of flour. Obviously, the flour should glop together into an intractable bunch of lumps and defy all attempts to smooth it out. Not so: The flour and water combine nicely into a homogeneous sphere in the middle of the saucepan.

Then you start adding eggs, unbeaten, if you please, to the hot flour-and-water sphere. Oh, really, now -- this certainly would produce poached eggs, bits of hard-cooked white and yolk that can't possibly blend with anything, let alone that sullen lump of paste in the saucepan.

Again, not so. You beat the mixture like hell after every egg (don't, by the way, make a double recipe of cream puffs unless you're stronger than I was in my teens, as chances are you're not) -- but handled firmly, one egg after another slips meekly into the mix.

Then you drop the batter onto a cookie sheet in tablespoon-size lumps and bake them. Please note that the ingredients included no leavening. The eggs do it somehow, as with popovers or Yorkshire pudding. I've never understood those things either. Angel food and sponge cake depend on eggs as well, but that's whipped-up egg white that expands while baking. That at least makes sense; but please note that I've managed exactly one such cake in my life -- the first jelly roll I ever attempted -- and was never able to do it again.

Contrary to expectations, the cream puffs come out of the oven high and round, golden brown and eggy, with a nice hollow in the middle to be filled with vanilla pudding or whatever strikes your fancy.

The first time you make cream puffs you blindly follow the instructions, thinking at every turn, "How can this be right??" It never does come to look any more likely; but it works. What more could anyone want?

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Rather late on a weekday night in the early 1970s, I was waiting between the two sets of tracks in Park Street Station for the train to Harvard Square. The only other person visible was a young man walking back and forth on the other side of the Cambridge-bound tracks, looking intently into the pit. "What the hell is he doing?" I thought. It was difficult to imagine anything good that could come of a fascination with the underside of the subway.

Conan Doyle says of a fictional young Irishman that he had too much imagination to be a really brave man. I don't think of myself as a nervous person; but very little evidence will set the old literary imagination to conjuring worst case scenarios, which it is very good at. "Does he have some kind of explosive, is he going to blow up the train?" He didn't seem to be carrying anything, but he could have had something in a pocket, or under his jacket. "Is he going to do an Anna Karenina and throw himself under the train?"

We didn't yet have a lot of suicide bombers, but the world has never lacked violent lunatics. Watching this young guy, I experienced a wave of moral certainty that he was up to no good. Having, as Sherlock Holmes says of the Greek Interpreter, no physical courage, I badly wanted out of that subway station. I tried to figure out how I would get home if I fled up the stairs and out.

My next moral certainty was, "I can't do that." If something ugly was brewing over there that no one else had noticed, I couldn't just run off. Climbing the stairs and crossing over to the other side of the pit, even reserving as I went the right to turn tail and run if the train came before I got there, may have been the bravest thing I have ever done.

By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, the subway-pit enthusiast had been joined by another young man. I strolled over as casually as I could manage and asked what was going on.

The first guy pointed into the pit. "Mice," he said. Sure enough, little dark-colored mice were scurrying around down there. We watched them for a bit, and then I took my leave and strolled off to wait for the train by myself.

I felt, of course, more than a little foolish (although please note that at least one other person had been moved to investigate). But the ridiculous anticlimax that I barged into didn't change the initial decision to act responsibly when I would have vastly preferred not to.