Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Becoming Our Parents

In a new television commercial, a series of adult men and women lament that they are turning into their parents.

The examples they cite relate to frugality (“Why is the door open? Are we trying to air condition the whole neighborhood?”) and to being behind the times (“I find myself texting in whole sentences”).

I don’t relate directly to most of the examples in the commercial, but I still find myself becoming more like my parents each year. I look so much like my dad did in his 50s and 60s (though he was a lot thinner and not quite as bald), I use some of his Deep South expressions (“I’m waiting on you,” rather than “waiting for you”) and I sometimes adopt the sarcastic undertone my mother might convey when you didn’t agree with her. Audrey has developed the same tendency that her mother had to worry about things large or small. Our kids know the importance of texting as soon as they arrive some place whenever they travel either a short or long distance. She is on “pins and needles” until the text arrives.

It seems inevitable that we just can’t escape the hold our parents have on us even after they are no longer physically in our lives. For Audrey and me, cooking, especially for holidays, is one definite way that we imitate our parents. And I don’t think we’re unique.

How do I know? For Exhibit 1, just look at the meal Audrey and I put together last Sunday when our kids joined us for Mother’s Day.

Here was the "historically-correct" menu:

1) Barbecued short ribs marinated in the special sauce my mother used to concoct (a mixture of sautéed onions, ketchup, chili sauce, Heinz 57 sauce, spicy mustard, and just a touch of sugar—with none of the ingredients actually measured, just added “to taste”); parboiled to remove most of the fat and assure quicker cooking on the grill; and then grilled as my father would do them so they were moist but still properly charred. Since I gave up eating red meat or chicken more than 10 years ago, these ribs were recreated from memory, not from taste. But they were well received by the rest of the family—and admired longingly but forlornly for by our dog.

Barbecued short ribs were a staple of the meal my parents would often cook for my entire family in Savannah on Father’s Day each year. They are also the meal that Brett would usually request to be served when he returned from sleepaway camp each summer.

2) A salad of marinated cucumbers and string beans, made the way Audrey’s grandmother used to do it. Slice the cucumbers and rings of red onion thinly; combine them with white vinegar, vegetable oil, mustard, and a little sugar; then let them sit for as many hours as possible to build the flavor. Once again, this recipe has no set measurements. That would defy tradition.

3) A special dessert—a German shortcake called muerbeteig, that is part of our family lore and humor. Following my mother-in-law’s rules, the dough was made with Crisco rather than butter for flakiness and included a touch of vinegar (“That’s what creates the muerb,” or fragility, my mother-in-law would say.) After the dough was baked, Audrey spooned on top a compote made of frozen rhubarb cooked with a half-cup of sugar. Then she covered the cake and rhubarb with a layer of melted semi-sweet chocolate bits that was allowed to harden in the refrigerator before serving.

Brett and Amanda and the famous muerbeteig.

For most of our married life, Audrey refused to take on making a muerbeteig herself despite her mother’s cajoling. “It’s so simple,” my mother-in-law would say. “Why won’t you make it?” In later years, our children picked up on the cajoling, in part to tease Audrey and in part to get a rise out of their grandmother. Brett even took on the task of baking a muerbeteig for a family holiday meal several years before Audrey did. The cake we served this Mother’s Day helped bring my mother-in-law back into all of our memories again and made us all smile

So, this Mother’s Day, we became our parents and grandparents, if only for a little while and mostly at the stove and dinner table. I am wondering just how our children will become us in the future.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

What’s So Special about 73?

My Aunt Lillian and Uncle Walter are celebrating their 73rd anniversary next week. That’s a pretty amazing number! I cannot imagine a couple more connected than my aunt and uncle. They have held each other together well into their nineties, spreading joy and optimism both within and beyond our family.
Uncle Walter and Aunt Lillian together as always
Here is an example of what I mean. My aunt’s hearing has been failing for many years, a fact which she hasn’t always admitted to or let dim her outlook on life. My uncle, on the other hand, is one of the great snorers of our time. “Windows rattle in the house when my dad sleeps,” my cousin David once remarked. Somehow those two infirmities haven’t gotten in their way. A few years ago, my aunt noted that as they have gotten older, my uncle’s snoring problem seems to be getting much better. No problem!

As I thought about the upcoming 73rd anniversary, I began doing a little thinking about the significance of the number 73. It seems to be everywhere in my family’s life these days. My brother is 73. So are my cousins Joel and Harold. Audrey and I recently celebrated our 45th anniversary, having been married in the year 1973.

Cheering for the number 73!
Is there anything else special about the number 73, I wondered, numerology-wise? It turns out that it is pretty special. (Here is a little esoterica.) 73 is the 21st prime number. Its mirror (37) is the 12th and its mirror (21) is the product of multiplying 7 and 3. In binary, 73 is a palindrome, 1001001 which backwards is 1001001. How special is that!

There is even a Biblical significance. If you count up the number values of the letters in the first seven words from Genesis 1:1 (In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth), the sum is 2701, which is 73 x 37.  Biblical scholars seem to revel in this kind of number play. And my Uncle Walter would be happy to know that the number values of the letters in the word Chokma, which means “wisdom,” also add up to 73. He has always been one of the wisest—and funniest—men I have known.

I’m not sure what all of this has to do with my aunt and uncle and what it reflects on their amazing long run together, but I wanted to celebrate them, both in anecdote and in numbers. Together, they add up to quite a pair.!

Friday, January 26, 2018

My Mom, the Bathing Beauty

This coming Tuesday, my mother would be 98 years old. Sadly, we won’t be celebrating her birthday with her (she died nearly four years ago), but I will be thinking of her. And I’m writing about her now and about a big surprise she left behind.

My parents were not big on photo albums. Sure, there were a few pictures taken of my brother and me at birthday parties, high school graduations, and family gatherings. There is an adorable shot of my brother and me sitting uncomfortably atop a horse when I was about four and he was about nine, and even an embarrassing shot of me being sworn in as captain of the school safety patrol in sixth grade. But those pictures were mostly isolated shots, pinned onto bulletin boards around our house or set into inexpensive frames and hung onto walls.

So it was a big shock when my sister-in-law Sandy found a small, aging photo album tucked into a storage chest in the attic in my mother’s house, which she was clearing out after my mother moved from the house into an assisted-living facility late in her life.

And what an album it is! The album is labeled "Miami Beach, Florida, August 1939" and features a very happy gathering of young people enjoying the sun, beach, and each other’s company. Young women AND men, and one of them is my 19-year-old mom! She’s hugging young men I don’t know (and never met) and wearing some skimpy summer outfits. And she is smiling big time!

My Mom is at the top right surrounded by young men.

Hugging and smiling big time!
I’m not sure how most people would respond to finding a “bathing beauty” photo album of their mother as a teenager. On a scale from shocked to surprised, I’d like to think that I was closer to surprised. But my surprise quickly morphed into smiles as I looked through the album. There is a freedom and joy that I don’t think I saw often in my mother. After all, I first met her long after she was married and already the mother of a five-year-old. And I doubled her family responsibilities. Once I arrived, she had three lives to run besides her own—and that was just in our immediate family.

The Miami photos also surprise me because the mother I knew almost never went to the beach even though Tybee was just 18 miles from our Savannah home. She said she hated the beach “because it was dirty.” I’m sure she was joking when she said that, but only partially. She really didn’t like mess. Luckily, she still put up with me and my messy ways for the 18 years I lived full-time in the Savannah house that was her home for nearly 60 years.  

My Mom on a sandy beach-- now, that's a surprise!
I have lots of memories of my mom, but none of her as a bathing beauty until this album emerged from its hiding place. It’s nice that your mom can still surprise you and make you smile after all these years.