Monday, November 23, 2009

CRANBERRY MEMORIES

I wrote this personal essay in 1981. It was published in the Milwaukee Journal on Thanksgiving Day 1983.

The cranberries are washed and sorted. I have cleared my mind and my stove for this task.
It is time to find the recipe and begin the last chore standing between me and the relaxation of the holiday. I thumb through my recipe file to locate the 3x5 card, yellowed with age. Seeing the card brings on such a torrent of memories that I sit down for a moment to let them wash over me.

The recipe, written in my mother’s hand, is a simple one for whole berry sauce. She copied it for me when I was a bride of two months, almost twenty years ago. I have used it faithfully twice yearly since. I hear her voice: Don’t forget to skim the sauce when it gets cool.

She tells me that each time I make it, as she stands by my side in spirit. She has been dead for twelve Thanksgivings. A tear dismisses itself from my cheek and lands on the fading card, creating a little blur of ink.

This year, there is another absence. My daughter, just eighteen, will not be home for Thanksgiving. It is our first holiday without all of our children home. I am fiercely proud but mother-empty. My firstborn child has left the nest. Now I understand the unique sense of loss a mother knows, and it seems natural and good to be thinking of my own mother with this newfound wisdom.

I being to measure water, sugar, berries . . . remembering another kitchen in another era. Ration coupons had been hoarded to obtain the sugar for the sauce. I watched my mother measure these same ingredients and took my turn stirring until the berries began to pop. Her voice was as triumphant as a generals’ as she lifted the pot from the burner. “There, that’s done!”

I was told that I could skim off the foam when it was cool. Tasting the pink foam and finding it delicious, I asked, “Why do we have to skim it when it tastes so good like this?”

She replied, “Just for beauty’s sake.”

As the popping sounds of cooking cranberries begin in my own kitchen, I revel in my cranberry memories. After the war was over and gasoline was available for leisure driving, we took a drip that led us past blooming cranberry bogs. I asked my parents, “Did the berries get named for the color or the color for the berries? My sister laughed. My parents did not laugh. They recognized the quiet stirrings of philosophy and discussed the question with me gravely.

The Christmas I was fourteen, my father bought a gallon of the berries, hoping to rekindle the homespun goodness of his boyhood Christmases. We began to string them. But something had been forgotten—or never known—the trick of keeping them on the thread. As the overripe berries dropped onto the floor (and lay dying tin their clear, red blood), we began to laugh. It was such deep and healthy laughter. A newly fallible father was suddenly more dear than the one who never erred. With glee, we mopped up the mess and retrieved the foil tinsel from the attic. The birds ate cranberries in the snow.

As an adult, I traveled one November with my parents to Europe. It was my final vacation with my family of origin. Crossing the border into Italy on the fourth Thursday of our trip, we began to talk about how great it was going to be to have an authentic Italian meal. We hurried to the hotel dining room after checking into our rooms.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” were the first words from the maitre d’. After showing us to a table, he proudly announced the management’s ‘surprise for American guests, which was an adaptation of an American Thanksgiving dinner. We hid our disappointment as we ate roasted chicken, bread stuffing, acorn squash and lingonberry sauce masquerading as cranberries. My father teased my mother, whispering, “Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without your whole-berry sauce.”

My sauce has finished cooking. The berries all have popped, and the juice is translucent.

My reverie is broken by my three sons arriving home from school. These teenage men-boys swagger into the kitchen, ready to empty the refrigerator of its leftovers from yesterday. They are not interested in cranberry sauce or any food that is earmarked for Thanksgiving Day, but in the need to fill their cavernous stomachs now, just to hold them over until tonight’s meal.

They are joking and roughhousing and crowd the kitchen with their energy and activity. holidays force them into slow motion. On Thursday, I will gather memories of tenderness and togetherness for times bereft of such a luxury.

When my mother died, there was a matching pair of cut crystal bowls. There was no doubt in either my sister’s or my mind that we should split the pair and each have one. It is necessary to present the cranberry sauce in crystal. There is still a reverent silence when the berry bowl is set upon the table. Translucent berries shimmer in clear and brilliant juice. Candlelight spells red shadows upon the snow white linen. Anticipation of the bittersweet taste triggers memories of joys and heartbreaks throughout the year, and we give thanks.

The sauce in my kitchen is cool enough to skim. Cooking bubbles have risen to the surface and solidified into the pink foam. Suddenly, I understand my feelings of sadness and nostalgia. I am blessed to have my sons at home, but likewise blessed that my daughter has the courage to be absent. She is free to skim away the cloudy covering of childhood and, in so doing, will behold with clarity the beauty of her adult life as it unfolds. We will dine in one another’s presence in love and memory.

A voice interrupts me. It is my youngest son’s. “Ill skim off the foam for you. I like making the sauce beautiful and clear.”

We are ready for our Thanksgiving to begin.


© 1983 by Sara J. Glerum
All rights reserved. Electronic version published 2009

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Food for Thought . . . Words to Live By


At the suggestion of our daughter, we sought out the FDR Memorial while we were in DC recently. I knew nothing about it, so I wasn't ready for its emotional impact. I remember our daughter saying--back when G. W. Bush was president--she wished our president would walk through it every morning before he started work.
I felt the same way--only I'd like to prescribe it for every senator and representative, as well. During a slow walk through the four outdoor rooms, you'll find enough poignant, pithy statements carved into stone to take your breath away.

I recommend seeing it to everyone who has any work, business, or vacation time in our nation's capitol, although you might feel discouraged at how little progress we have made.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Popcorn of the Opera

Last night I sat spellbound at my local movie house—taking advantage of the “Live HD from the Met” program of simulcast opera performances from Metropolitan Opera. Puccini’s Turandot was an “encore,” meaning the performance I was watching had been captured at a live performance a week and a half earlier. So . . . it was a rerun, of sorts—but still a better way to spend a stormy evening than almost anything else I can think of. I sat enraptured, taking in the music and the gorgeous stage settings from what felt like the best seat in the house.

Not only was I loving the opera, I was loving the film crew’s brilliant use of the thirty-minute intermissions by showing what’s happening backstage as more than 100 stagehands bust their buns bringing in an extravaganza of scenery.

During the second intermission, with the cameras fixed on front-of-house for the final ten minutes before Act III, I allowed myself my own extravagance: a small bag of popcorn and a Coke. This purchase of movie snacks was a rarity at the movies for me. As Hubby will attest, I sometimes I smuggle my own Junior Mints into a Hollywood-type cinema, but I NEVER buy popcorn or a soft drink.

But there was something so silly about the idea, so twenty-first century-ish, that I couldn’t resist the impulse. Seeing Princess Turandot in her opulent palace feel love for the first time in her life while I was munching popcorn and sipping soda (with my best quiet manners) was fabulous, anachronistic fun. And even at the god-awful price of $10.50 for my treats (on top of the $18 for the special-event showing), I was spending only about one-tenth of what the best seat in the house would have cost me at the Met itself.

Such a deal.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Is it an E or an R?


As I was driving the other day, I turned on NPR just as The Writer’s Almanac was finishing up—you know, that ten-minute program Garrison Keillor puts on in the afternoons, the one where he reads a poem and shares tidbits about several writers, particularly those whose birthday it is.

I was only half-listening because there was heavy traffic, but this is what I thought I heard at the end of the program.

The Writer’s Almanac is brought to you, in part, by the NRA.”

What? I thought. The National Rifle Association? How GREAT! Maybe I need to rethink my opinion of the NRA. There have to be good guys within the organization if it sponsors this radio program!

My mind leapt to imagery of orange-vested, gun-toting tough guys hunkered down, waiting for a stag to meander by, and babbling verse to each other. “Hey, did you hear the one by ee cummings?” Maybe blank verse would even inspire them to load their rifles with blanks. I imagined a couple of guys in army-green raingear calling in turkeys up in Vermont while rhythmically moving to the cadence of Robert Frost.

Just then I realized my mistake. The announcer had said “NEA” not “NRA.” I had to laugh at my na├»ve assumption. But my fantasy continued. Why am I stereotyping gun owners to think they don’t enjoy poetry, or knowing which literary giant’s birthday it is? What if the National Riffle Association really did sponsor The Writer’s Almanac instead of, or along with, the National Endowment for the Arts? Doing such a thing would help to break down stereotypes, something we all could use—especially me, apparently.

Shall I write the NRA to suggest it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thomas Jefferson





On November 9, 2009, I saw the Thomas Jefferson Monument in Washington D.C. for the first time.



Nothing I can say about it would be fresh, so I won't say anything.
If you've seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, just hope that someday you can.

Library of Congress

At age 69, I finally made it to the Library of Congress! I was unaware, until a few days ago, that there are three buildings comprising the LOC, and that the Thomas Jefferson Building—with its elaborate neo-classical structure—has such a radiantly beautiful interior.

Hubby and I spent an hour there reflecting on a special exhibition of Herblock’s political cartoons spanning eight decades that brought back memories of all the things wrong with government over the years. Blunders and accomplishments of past administrations became immediate again as we lingered over his poignant timeless cartoons. Some cartoons made me want to cry and others prompted a deep, satisfying nod—as if a friend had just pinpointed a trouble I’d not been able to articulate.

But my tears were unstoppable when I stepped into Thomas Jefferson’s library—and stood surrounded in a circle of books of his own collection. I don’t think I ever knew that his sale to the nation of his personal library of over 6,000 volumes enabled our country to reestablish its official library after a fire destroyed the country’s collection of books. Jefferson knew a national library was essential if our nation were to endure. The magnitude of Jefferson’s interests, and his singular way of organizing his book collection brought him alive to me in a new way. I have rarely been that moved by the sight of books.

Monday, November 2, 2009

BREAKING THE FAST, WINNING THE WAR

My mother always whistled melodic popular tunes while fixing breakfast. Her stride, as she went from the stove to the fridge to the stove again, was distinctive, an oddity she explained by saying she “favored” her right foot. I would lie awake, with gray light piercing the edges of my bedroom curtains, listening to her whistling in rhythm with the clip-clip, clip-clip of her steps as she bustled across the kitchen, which was just below my room.

She made glorious breakfasts. On weekends we could hope for Dutch babies or marmalade muffins, bacon omelets or steamy waffles, but on school days she just made eggs, which were soft-boiled, fried, or occasionally scrambled, a variety of toasted breads, and bacon. My favorite breakfast (beginning at age five) was hot white rice covered with melted butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, but that was not allowed unless I was sick, because—as my mother would say—“there is no nourishment in white rice.”

Our whole family—Mother, Dad, my sister, and I—ate breakfast together, although Mother, a dutiful, apron-garbed housewife, rarely sat with us, but moved back and forth between stove and table to serve us. By the time I was in high school, my body rebelled from digestive activity early in the morning and nothing in the way of food appealed to me before about eleven o’clock, especially not eggs. This aversion lasted for well over a year, prompting a running argument every morning.

“You have to eat something.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You’ll do better in school with breakfast—it’s fuel in your tank.”

“My health teacher says that’s a myth. We should eat only when we are hungry.”

Ah, the ancient foil for parents—the word of an expert, teacher, tossed into the conversation to weight the argument, which continued endlessly. Finally, Mother and I would find a compromise: “At least, please eat a piece of toast, or ask your father for a 'dog bite'.”

"Dog bites" were my father’s invention. The dogs at our house changed periodically—Alice, Josh, Jake, Winston, Pat—but the food tidbits he dubbed "dog bites" never changed. They were devised by Dad who enjoyed sneaking breakfast to the dogs. Everyone in our house “knew better than to feed dogs at the table” (Mother’s words) and we likewise understood that healthy dogs need to eat only once a day. In our house, that meant in the evening. But oh, those doleful eyes beneath the morning table! The dogs all learned to snuggle up to Dad’s chair, to patiently wait for a bite of his breakfast. And this is what they got from a man whose weekday breakfast rarely varied: A corner of toast, buttered and dipped in coffee laced with milk and sugar; one forkful of egg—usually the white rather than the yolk “because there is more of it” (Dad’s words); and a nibble of bacon. The whole thing was topped off with a dollop of Seville orange marmalade. The dogs would swallow this delicacy in one gulp and promptly beg for more.

My father, ostensibly understanding my aversion to breakfast, seemed pleased to supply me with "dog bites," too—as long as Mother cooked him three eggs instead of two. He would slip one across the table to me as if we were conspirators, although she knew and approved because of her nutritional convictions. For whatever reason, a “dog bite” was a hundred times more appetizing to me than anything on my own plate. Many mornings I left the house with my books, homework, violin, lunch bag, and two of these tasty items in my stomach.

My preference for mooching from my father’s plate instead of eating my own food must have driven my mother nearly crazy. Because breakfast had become such a source of contention between us, she continued to challenge me to think of a food I would be willing to eat in the morning. That’s when I had my wonderful idea. Because I didn’t really like our weekday breakfast fare—eggs, toast, or even bacon—why not have dinner for breakfast! Dinner in the morning would appease my mother’s desire to feed me, and allow me to eat with appetite. A roast—yummy! Spuds, a veggie, gravy! These were my favorite foods. Initially Mother scoffed at my proposal, but eventually she caved to my cajoling, demanding, and pleading. Mother announced one Sunday evening, a month after my campaign began, that dinner would be served at 7:00 a.m. the next day.

Dreaming of my favorite dinner foods—rare roast beef, carrots cooked in cream, and mashed potatoes—I awoke to hear my whistling mother accompanying her distinctive footsteps. She sounded especially cheery. Food aromas permeated my bed-clothes and my room, and they were not, thank goodness, eggy smells. I could not quite place them, however, so I dressed quickly, trying on only two outfits (instead of the usual four) before deciding what to wear. Entering the kitchen, I greeted my mother with enthusiastic exclamations about this morning’s “breakfast” and offered to help. As I set the table in the dining room (a departure from the morning routine), the food didn’t smell quite as appetizing as I had imagined it would. It wasn’t until Mother asked me to put mint sauce on the table that I realized what her menu was. She had prepared leg of lamb infused with garlic, and had chosen to make her famous tomato-eggplant casserole, potatoes browned in lamb drippings then oven roasted, and a pan of dark-brown lamb gravy.

As we gathered around the table, artificial cheerfulness pervaded. Mother joined us and took off her apron. Dad carved the lamb and served up dinner-sized portions. I managed to finish my plateful but passed on seconds, as did my sister and dad. As my mother spooned a tiny second helping of eggplant onto her plate, I thought I noticed a tiny, smug smile on her face. After clearing my dishes in silence, I left for school. We never discussed the meal again, and my great idea about breakfast died a quiet and natural death. Mother had won the breakfast war, without raising her voice or ceasing to whistle.