Bird's Milk (A Love Story)

They met in a bar on Jaco Beach. She walked in, early evening, sat at the corner of the counter, off to the side, ordered a beer and quietly nursed her drink. It wasn’t that she looked lonely or uncomfortable, and yet… He was tending bar that night, took note of her. It was a slow night, so, after a while, he started talking to her.

She’d just finished her Master’s in education and had a teaching position at a private school lined up for the fall. She’d decided to have one last fling before settling down to the rest of her life, so had bought a ticket to Costa Rica and intended to visit for a month. She’d spent a week in the Arenal Volcano region, and decided to learn how to surf, something she’d always wanted to do, so rented a place in Jaco. And here she was, first day of surfing done.

She had an air of quiet vulnerability about her. Although he’d known her all of an hour, he felt oddly protective of her. Wanted to keep her near. So he offered her a beer on the house as she listened to his story.

Two years into medical school, he’d discovered, to his family’s horror, that he didn’t really want to be a doctor. He’d taken a leave of absence and boarded a plane to London. Three years and twenty countries later, the leave long expired, he’d landed in Jaco and started working at the bar for a much needed infusion of cash. He figured he would keep wandering until he figured out what to do with his life…

They were both surprised at how comfortable they felt with each other, how easy it was to be together. When the bar’s owner announced last call, they each felt that there was still so much more to share. So they agreed to meet the following afternoon and visit Manuel Antonio National Park.

He picked her up the next day, and they drove in companionable silence. The day was hot, humid. They walked deep into the park. Their shirts were soon drenched in sweat. A bird rustled in the suddenly still air. 

She spoke. 

“There is a folk tale about a princess who tests her suitor’s love by sending him out into the wilderness to find the one thing she does not have – bird’s milk.”

“There is no such thing,” he said.

“Exactly.”

“So he spends the rest of his life seeking the unattainable?”

She shrugged. They spoke of the impossibility of desire. Or was it the desire of the impossible? 

And then, inevitably, they made love, in the grass. And it was in that moment – in that hush among the trees – the melding of their bodies – that they were undone.  Unbeknownst to them, the shape of the years to come, those years that would hold both joy and sorrow, triumph and disappointment, love and despair – their shared destiny – was forged at five o’clock in the afternoon. Gods at play in the woods.

She took him back to her shack and extended her stay for three weeks. They spent her remaining time in the country together. She listened as he spoke to her of his confused desires, his blank future terrifying him. He dreamed as she described the city, her apartment, her life-to-come.

And then came the moment to say goodbye. On a whim, the morning of the day she was to return home, she slipped a piece of paper with her address into his shirt pocket. He drove her to the airport. As she was about to pass though security, she hesitated, waiting for him to say something that would hint at the promise of future contact. He hesitated, confused, not sure what he wanted. So he watched as she boarded her plane and vanished into the clouds.

She returned home, to what became the unrelenting monotony of days filled with teaching math to high school students and not much else. At night, settling into bed after a few glasses of wine, she would remember the moments spent in that shack by the ocean. He spent a few more months in South America, but suddenly became acutely aware of the loneliness in his wandering. He surprised himself: feeling that he’d had enough, he bought a plane ticket. And, one morning, she walked out of her apartment building to find him outside, waiting. 

It was the hubris that only the young have. They had each decided, in the blink of an eye, that the other was to be their savior. Did either experience a twinge of doubt? How ironic that it was the small acts in life, those most easily taken for granted, never properly thought through, that were the ones most fraught with danger. Innocent traps that ensnared a person’s destiny while the individual was not looking – the foundation of a house that Jack and Jill would build. 

It took him awhile to find himself. He never did have that flash of inspiration, so wound up working at an investment bank. She had three children. They moved to the suburbs, where she discovered, to her dismay, that she had developed “Achilles Heel” – a condition resulting from too much driving, inducing excess contact of the right heel of the foot with the floorboard of an over-sized SUV, creating numbness in the heel, cramping of the toes and flabbiness of the thighs. Recommended course of treatment: numerous diet fads, various gyms, sculpting treatments and trainers – the spending of an amount of money that probably could have bailed out a bankrupt small nation.

He was restless, irritable. Too secure, too comfortable. Irrationally, he began to remember those years of sad wandering with a certain fondness. As his mind receded into the past, he became distant. They became strangers occupying the same space.

One evening, she went to see a ballet performance. The choreographer, Danish, came out onstage to speak with the audience after the show. Asked to describe the source of his inspiration, he talked of the “vo-ka-bu-lary” of dance. That’s when she understood – it was all about where you put the accent on the “syl-la-ble” of life. Passion – obsession. Flip sides of the same coin. “Pain perdue” (lost bread) – is what the French call “French Toast”. Is it all a matter of perception? 

They’d gone through life learning the rudiments of a language whose cadences were familiar, reassuring. Now, suddenly, they were uncertain of a gesture’s arc. Cut adrift from the mooring of shared meaning, each word began to weigh heavily on the tongue.  Those years together – had they really accomplished nothing?

Somewhere along Route I-95, despite the good intentions of the parties involved, their marriage sputtered to an end. It took them three years to leave each other. It was difficult to discern the leaver from the leavee – so they both suffered. Once the surge of passion ebbed, all they had left was the taste of ashes in their mouths. The dust of unsettled dreams.

Infidelity committed but not admitted. Infidelity contemplated but not committed. It didn’t matter, really. They each endured the sensation of being suddenly-bereft of the body-next-to-yours. A life together full of color and meaning had become meaning-less. Once they were a couple.

She was no longer the Wife. He was no longer the Bright Young Thing. Half-baked decisions had thrown their lives into strange tangents. Were they has-beens? In their minds, they had just started out of the gate. Shifting sands of time made it so they were unable to stand firm on the ground.

So much for the steppes of life. It now became a question of identity. Des she keep his last name and remain someone she could no longer claim to be? Or shake the mothballs off her maiden name and return to someone she no longer was? She was suddenly a nameless free agent. The conundrum of last names.

It would take additional decades for them to understand that those once  loved were never left behond. You carry them within the recesses of your soul, conjuring them up in times of need or sorrow or joy. A never-ending rope that chains you to the ground. Only Icarus could fly high enough to be scorched by the sun. Mere mortals, the ones who live to be old and full of lost love, are left to puzzle through their could-have-beens.

They thought they had bequeathed the gift of their success to their children. That the specters perched on their shoulders would grace those of their progeny. It was, after all, the circle of life. Yet another illusion.

Her son, when he was fifteen, told her he knew what an ellipsis was. So did she. It was the loss of the illusions of youth that brought on the hard-edged lines of old age. And so it goes…

Those woods still stand to tell the tale of two young adults at play one afternoon – two naïve individuals who believed in fusion without combustion, endless possibilities and happy endings. Does life lose its dazzle once the bright future morphs into the painful past? Should we reach out to these two souls soon to be lost and tell them to hurry up and wait? But then, their sorrows, their lives, their particular legacies, would not exist. 

Within each of them still lives the child hoping, dreaming, of bird’s milk.

***

Challah French Toast

6 eggs

¾ cup milk

½ teaspoon kosher salt

6 slices of challah

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Maple syrup and ground cinnamon, for serving

In a shallow dish, whisk together the eggs, milk, and salt. Lay the challah slices in the egg mixture and let sit, turning once, until soaked through.

In a frying pan, melt butter over medium heat until foaming. Fry the bread slices, flipping once, until golden brown on each side. Serve immediately, drizzled with maple syrup and sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon.

The Maradona

“Mom, am I what you were?” asks my ten year old child.

“What are you?” I reply.

“What were you?” he responds.

            Fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, sons and mothers. We are defined by our relationships – a web of articulated bonds.

            I learned about the “Maradona” from my soccer-crazed younger son. Named after a famous Argentinian soccer player, it’s a move that involves faking to your right while kicking the ball with your left foot. Or something like that. I pretended to understand as my son flicked the ball, seemingly dancing on the field of green grass.

            What my sister and I grew up to fear most was failure. The inability to meet expectations. More specifically, the goals set by parents and family:

  • We must be a high-minded and productive member of society, ergo, a doctor, lawyer, teacher or, lower on the status pole, a social worker.
  • We must be philanthropical, which requires our being wealthy.
  • We must be the best, code for the smartest in the room.
  • We must be a mentsch, but also pleasing to the eye.
  • We must conquer the world, but in a nice way.
  • And, most important of all, we must be more successful than the children of their friends.

So what my sister and I came to dread, most of all, was being mediocre. When you are a child of Holocaust survivors, plain living is a denouement. Bleeding gums is not a tragedy. Although, my family heirloom, passed down to me from my mother – were my grandmother’s dentures, the only keepsake my mother could sneak into her pocket as her mother lay dying in Auschwitz. The specter of my mother weighing 80 pounds at the time of her liberation – what am I to do with that image knocking around in my head? Or seeing her agonize over her guilt at outliving her two sons, aged four and six, taken out to a field and shot as she, along with the remaining Jews in her town’s ghetto, were loaded onto trains during the final deportation to Treblinka. 

My parents met after liberation, in a DP camp in Germany. Two lost souls, they found each other and, together, attempted to wend their way through a world of shadows and ghosts. They went on to have two children, my sister and me. The irony was in my recognition, early in life, that, but for Hitler, I would not have been born. My existence shaped by hearing my mother’s cries at night, wracked by the shame of having survived and, in so doing, wanting children again. Her ambivalence at having been given a second chance at being a mother.

My parents immigrated to the States, landed in New York City in 1950. They wound up running a restaurant in the basement of a magnificent Beaux-Art mansion on the corner of Madison Avenue and 78th street. They were handed this opportunity by the Jewish Labor Bund. The building was owned by the Atran Foundation and housed various Jewish charities and philanthropies. The idea was to have a cafeteria that would feed the inhabitants of the place. But, through the years, news of my mother’s succulent roast chicken and sumptuous mushroom barley soup spread among the gallery and boutique owners of the Upper East Side, so that, with time, well-dressed doyennes of Fifth Avenue mixed with staff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jewish artists and socialists,  and hungry students from the art institute down the block (to whom my mother would serve a heaping bowl of soup and chunk of bread for fifty cents) all crowded into the cafeteria. Everyone, as equals, seated around small tables covered with red-and-white checked tablecloths, cigarette smoke hovering over conversations occurring in a babel of languages, from Yiddish to English to French to Italian to German.

My sister and I helped, in the kitchen, washing thousands of dishes by hand. There were three sinks – one to spray the dishes, the second to soak them in soapy water, the third to rinse them in boiling hot clean water. We would then stack the dishes on wooden tracks to dry, beads of perspiration forming on their surfaces. 

“The dishes are crying,” my father would say. My father – a poet. Go figure. This was my world, one my own children will never know, could not fathom. The birth of my consciousness. 

As for my mother- well, when we were little, she would tell us the tale of her seven years of enchanted living. Born into a family with too many daughters, in a small town in Poland, she was sent to live with her grandparents, to work in their tiny buttons-and notions store. Growing up, she was always hungry, lonely and cold. She could hear her friends playing in the courtyard outside the store, in the early evening. She was made to stay inside and retire early, to be ready for the next day of work. Her future was bleak, in this village with no escape.

In spite of these circumstances, she had grown into a beautiful eighteen-year-old. On a sultry summer day, a rare day off, swimming at a lake with her family, she caught the eye of the good doctor – a sought-after eligible bachelor twenty years her senior. He was a prominent member of the Jewish elite, a member of the Bund, had an apartment at the Jewish Hospital over which he presided. He started courting her. Her family incredulous, one of her aunts stating that a cactus would sooner grow from her hand than the good doctor would marry my mother. But propose he did – instead of a ring, he gave her a bicycle. And whisked her away.

 There followed seven years of utter joy – working as a nurse beside this man she adored, safe in his arms, surrounded by friends, no longer hungry or cold. She was Cinderella, at home at last with her prince. And with time, two children were born, two boys. Hearing this story, how could my sister and I not grow up believing that a prince would appear in our own lives and carry us away to a castle of our own? Or, at the very least, to a spacious three-bedroom ranch in Westchester. 

All was like a fairy tale – until Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. So while we envisioned joy in our future, we were also taught its flip side – that one must pay for one’s happiness. That life, in the end, is a Greek tragedy. And my mother paid, with the death of her husband and two sons.

Her strength to live on is something I can’t begin to comprehend. Her ability to love again – nothing short of miraculous. Her agonizing and self-demonizing guilt over her ability to do both – heart-breaking. I am humbled by my mother’s ferocious will. She was just a woman in love, who had it all and lost it, and then tried to rebuild the happiness she had once known. Nothing ever measured up in this recreation. How do we live with that?

Two days before my father died, he asked me to trim his hair. He was always very particular about personal hygiene. He claimed that the sole reason he survived the camps, from September, 1942 until April, 1945, when he was liberated, was because he kept himself clean, washing himself in the snow outside the barracks. My father was mostly a quiet man – he didn’t share much about his life in Poland before the war, his time in the camps, or the wife and daughter he lost. I cut his fine, gray hair in the companionable silence that was our way together. His love for me had been evident throughout our lives together – as my mother left early in the morning to prepare the food at the cafeteria, my father had taken care of getting my sister and me off to school. He braided my hair and filled my lunch box with overstuffed pastrami sandwiches (god forbid his children would ever feel the hunger he had). He paid for private college and law school. And he absolutely and unconditionally loved the two grandsons I gifted him, my boys. An unassuming man, who led a quietly exceptional life in the love and fortitude he exhibited to those around him. No man could ever live up to that. 

They have long since passed, my parents and most of my family. Their stories are branded in my memory, their souls enfolded in mine. What will happen when I am gone? 

Ingredients

***

Chicken soup (what else?) –

1 whole chicken

3 large carrots

3 celery stalks

2 yellow onions

1 large parsnip

¼ cup dill

1 T kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

Prep

Place the chicken, carrots, celery, onions, parsnip and dill in a large soup pot and cover with cold water by one inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer, skimming off any foam that accumulates, until the chicken is tender and falling off the bone (about 2.0 hours). 

Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and let cool. Strain the broth through a sieve and return to the pot. Remove the chicken meat from the bones and chop. Discard the dill. Slice the vegetables into bite size pieces and return the vegetables and chicken to the pot. Stir in salt and pepper, to taste. Serve hot. 

New Year's/New York

To know a city like the back of your hand: each street as familiar as the steadily encroaching lines on your face, traffic noise as insistent as the onslaught of years, the incessant ebb and flow of the city crowds as comforting in its existence as it is frightening in its absence. A pulse outside your own, a breath enveloped in yours. Rhythms inherent in the seasons: summertime evacuation to the beach, wintertime escapes to the slopes, spring to the south to see cherry blossoms and autumn to the north for the changing leaves. The momentary hush that befalls a city caught naked on the heels of a newly fallen snow. The throbbing of clubs, the search for the ultimate high-low-new-old thrill, the all-too-bright, all-too-loud, all-too-muchness of it all. An in-your-face attitude touting cellulite-destroying, breast-enhancing, wrinkle-devouring, muscle-developing treatments/pathways/systems. All to be had at the drop of a large bundle of money. To live seduced by the sounds of a city’s pain, the sights of its triumphs, the song of its promise. To be part of the hottest new trends in this hottest of cities at this end-of-a-decade.

            Yet, to entertain the thought of leaving it because of its overwhelming-ness. To run to a desert, the eyes of a coyote staring you down on an impossibly-hot-early-summer morning. Or to another city, deceptive in calling itself a city because it turns out to be small and not-all-that. Or to the mountains, with its mute expanse of black star-crazy sky. To the silence of a wind howling outside a window. A bird’s call echoing the sound of wind chimes. Where one’s breath is measured against the ticking of a second-hand. Where a New York minute becomes an unnecessary hour.

            To reject the thought of escape, because, after all, there is nowhere like New York, where the sunrise is carelessly thrown above a still-slumbering city. Where you reach out your hand and never come up empty. Where the days are full of color and meaning, so life never becomes meaning-less. Where your heart is bursting and your soul filled with regrets. Where you tremble in anticipation of Armageddon. Where you don’t follow the north star but the smell of a good hot-dog vendor. 

            It’s all about beginnings and endings, except that you never know you were at the beginning until you’ve reached the end. 

            So you start over. You go to the square and look up at the sky to see a crystal ball descend from the heavens.

            Happy New Year, New York.

***

Ring in the New Year with a Champagne cocktail

Ingredients:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 to 3 dashes bitters
  • 1 ounce brandy
  • 4-6 ounces Champagne
  • Garnishes – orange slice, maraschino cherry

Place the sugar cube at the bottom of a Champagne flute. Pour bitters over the cube. Add the brandy. Fill the flute with Champagne; the sugar cube should dissolve. Garnish with the orange slice and maraschino cherry.

Amuse-Bouche

Amuse-Bouche – a small fanciful offering from the chef, an enticing harbinger of the meal to come.

Beggar’s Purse – a savory morsel wrapped in delicate layers of flaked pastry, tied at the top as if beckoning to be opened by a slight tug of the hand, itching to reveal the delights hidden within.

                                                                                  ***

Would she ever inspire such passion?

An idle thought that darted through her mind midway through what was promising to be a very long and somewhat painful evening.

It was 9:00 p.m. and they were only now being served the first course of an eight course meal. The amuse-bouche had been a beggar’s purse, which she had dabbed at it. It was quite good, actually, but she was just not in the mood, angry at letting herself get roped into attending this event. She didn’t even celebrate Christmas. But here she was, Christmas Eve, seated at a table with 24 strangers. The 25th, Bev, the hostess, was her colleague at work. Bev needed a last minute substitute to fill the seat of an invitee who had gotten the flu. So Bev had asked her to come, knowing that all she had planned for the night was streaming a movie at home and ordering Chinese. She owed Bev, who had recently managed to salvage a deal that was almost doomed.

She was wedged between a thirty-five year conceptual artist on her left and a twenty-five year old middle school teacher on her right. That had been quickly established over the beggar’s purse. She herself was on the wrong side of forty, almost too old to understand half the references being discussed at the table.

She made another effort with the artist, asking him what kind of art he created. Tilting his head to his left, looking down his nose at her, he drawled, “conceptual”.

 “Ah,” she said, “like a banana taped to the wall?”

 “No,” he sniffed, “like meaningful interactive ephemeral videography”.

She had no clue what that was.

Seeing her confusion, he continued. “Political statements momentarily caught in time, that self-destruct.”

 “So, if I bought the piece, I would get a whole lot of – nothing?”

He shot her a look of what could only have been pure hatred and turned to his date, on his left. As the wait staff began to collect the amuse-bouche plates, her gaze fell upon the couple across the table. She recognized the pair – he was a young newscaster from a local television station; she, an “influencer”. They were deep in conversation, totally oblivious of everyone else in the room, their eyes devouring each other. And that’s when the idle thought about passion crossed her mind.

Suddenly single – a state that sneaks up on you.

Hubris – the Fates (probably male) laughing at your dreams.

Life- measured in heartthrobs of time. What happens when the ticking stops?

Her father had raised her to believe in the illusion, however fleeting, of good luck. Behave, do what is expected of you, and good things would come your way.

If she ever hesitated, he would ask her – “What are you waiting for, an invitation to life?”

As she continued to look at the couple across the table, she imagined that her response to her father tonight would have been along the lines of – “Dad, do you realize that it is out of sheer callowness that we embark on relationships in our youth that we then spend the rest of our lives extricating ourselves from?” She could hear her mother piping up at that point – “Honey, life is the same sentence rewritten countless times. You just need to know how to read the lines.”

The couple reached for each other’s hands. Never underestimate the power of touch. She could almost feel the electricity running through them.

The idea that people were born to be happy was a startling notion for her. She had been taught that only by dint of hard work, and some sacrifice, could she taste some flavor of joy.

“So, what exactly are you going to do when you grow up?”, her twelve-year old son had asked her earlier that day. She had been drifting lately, feeling irrelevant, her shelf-life past due. Passing days in a state of suspended animation. Somehow the leaps in her imagination hadn’t been borne out by the daily scrub of life.

“You’re a friend of Bev’s?” It was the twenty-five year old to her right, pulling her back to the dinner, to the soup being placed in front of her.

“I work with her, yes. How do you know Bev?”

“She’s my sponsor this year. I’m from Mobile – Alabama? – I teach sixth grade there – and I’m on a program where I get to teach sixth grade here in New York for a year.”

“How are you liking it so far?”

“It’s like a year abroad for me.” He smiles, a genuine smile, all teeth. “I haven’t been anywhere until now.”

Self-deprecating humor. She likes this young man – a rare gift. 

“Well, you should keep on going. Once school is out in June, why don’t you take your bag to Europe for the summer?”

“Have you traveled much?”

“I have, yes.” And she began to tell him her story. A life that at first seemed full of promises. A career in the making, a husband found, a child delivered, a modicum of success at the firm she joined. Days consisting of long hours of work, deals found and successfully closed, years interspersed with travel to exotic places. And then, imperceptibly, becoming overwhelmed by the mundane details of living – running just to keep in step. A marriage ended. Junior associates at work climbing over her to be promoted. Sold on the notion that she could do it all, she was not yet willing to admit the impossibility of having it all. Time shifting the ground beneath her feet, throwing her off-balance.

“Once you take your feet off the fast track, there is no return,” she told the young man. “Lying flat on your back, you see the past events in your life from a skewed perspective.”

“Would you do it all again, in the same way?” he asked.

She thought about his question. And then realized, astonished – “Absolutely. It’s worse not trying. There is never ‘later’ – only a should-have-done filled with regret. I may have a sack full of mistakes I carry on my back, but no could-have-dones.”

He thought about this. Should she tell him that she was feeling adrift right now, an almost-too-old, perhaps unnecessary fount of irrelevant information, at loose ends? She leaned back into her chair. She wanted to tell this young man – “Go for it. I had some fantastic moments back then. So, yes, lope into the horizon. You may get singed, but you’ll never understand what there is until you have seen what may be.”

She was waiting to enter a state of grace. In the meantime, there were two more courses waiting to be eaten.

                                                                     ***

Beggar’s Purse

Crepe bundles with caviar and sour cream.

For crepes:

5 T unsalted butter

1 cup whole milk

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 large eggs

¼ t salt

2 T chopped chives

For purses:

16-20 long chives

¾ cup sour cream

4 oz. caviar

Make crepe batter:

Melt butter in a skillet over medium heat; set aside 2 T for cooking crepes. Continue to cook butter remaining in the skillet until it is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Blend butter with remaining crepe ingredients, except chives, in a blender until smooth. Add chives and pulse 1 or 2 times to just combine. Let batter stand for 30 minutes.

Blanch whole chives in a small saucepan of boiling water for 10 seconds. Drain and pat dry.

Make crepes:

Lightly brush skillet with butter, then heat over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Stir batter. With skillet off heat, add ¼ cup batter, tilting and rotating skillet to coat bottom. Cook until golden around edges, maybe 15-30 seconds. Flip crepe over and cook until underside is set. Slide onto plate. Make more crepes.

Assemble purses:

Top each crepe with 1 1/2T sour cream and 2 t caviar. Gather crepe around the filling and tie 1 or 2 chives in a knot to close purse.

UNINTENDED LIVES: A COLLECTION OF TALL TALES – #1: TIRAMISU (OR PICK-ME-UP)

Let’s try something different. Over the course of the next two months, I will share with you some short stories from my anthology “Unintended Lives: A Collection of Tall Tales”. 

The first one is titled “Tiramisu (or pick-me-up)”.

***

It was the summer of 1998. Or maybe 1999. Her boys were 9 and 11, or somewhere thereabouts. It was August, of that she is sure. They had arrived in Antibes, planning to spend a month on the famous French Riviera.

Her younger son called her a pessimist back then, which surprised her, as she had packed them up and whisked them off on what was basically a whim, a product of the incipient madness that would envelope her in what would be a decade of strange and unpredictable life decisions. 

It was the year she had the first of her many mid-life epiphanies, or crises (depending on who is telling the tale), and decided she was going to leave a perfectly good corporate position to become a pastry cook. She enrolled in a renowned pastry program that would give her a certificate in nine months. 

Over the course of those months, she found that she loved the precision of measurements and movements required to make the perfect mousse or achieve the correct glaze of caramelized sugar. There was a comfort in following the dictates of a recipe – it was order imposed on an otherwise turbulent world. That was also the year her marriage fell apart.

She learned that, for desserts, it was all about the preparation.  Meticulous gathering and weighing of ingredients, to be whipped or folded or mixed at just the right moment, bringing the parts together into a harmonious whole. Here, if followed properly, the rules wouldn’t let you down.

But, after completing the course, certificate in hand, she wanted to learn more. There was the allure of an adventure to be had, for her and her sons. So she landed an unpaid internship in a patisserie in the town of Antibes. She found an apartment with a terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and even rented a small car to drive along the sinuous roads hugging the coast.  

As an apprentice in the patisserie, she was only permitted a few tasks, so as not to spoil the otherwise flawless pastries that emerged from its kitchen. Basically, she cracked eggs. Hundreds of them. Carefully separating whites from yolks. She would wake up each morning at six, watch the orange-red sun rise over the water in its awe-full grandeur, drink her café (she was, after all, in France), and head to the patisserie to crack eggs until noon. Her boys would wake at ten, watch American cartoons dubbed in French, argue with each other, and wait for her to come home at noon to pick them up.

And then the magic would happen. They would get their favorite lunch (jambon-buerre baguettes) from the store at the corner and eat it at the beach. The boys would try not to ogle the women who, of course, were bathing topless (this so did not happen at Rockaway Beach). Or they’d pack into the car and explore the small towns perched in the sloping hills of the Cote D’Azur, visiting museums or perfumeries. They would hang-glide in Nice, people-watch in Cannes or Saint-Tropez, or drop into Monaco. Wherever the breeze guided them. Their favorite place for dinner was a small Italian restaurant in town, where they would order spaghetti and discovered tiramisu. How the boys loved tiramisu. They would finish the day by walking through the town center, bristling with people, laughter, and romance. Before heading back home in the evening, they would buy giant cones of gelato and eat the dripping confection as they gazed at the moon, embraced by the soft sea wind.

It was one of the hottest summers in Europe in decades, so the roads were teeming with refugees from the steaming cities to the north and east. They heard no English other than their own bickering. She threatened to get a tattoo. Or swim topless. The boys threatened to disown her. They wound up meeting other children on the beach, a jumble of French-Italian-German-speaking kids with whom they would play soccer, communicating in some universal language of their own making.  By month’s end, her boys had achieved a certain French swagger, a semblance of sophistication that would serve them well when they returned home. 

It was an enchanted month. An unexpected pause in their lives that would prove to be a remarkable gift. Twenty years later, her youngest son would no longer be alive. An event she was not prepared for. In hindsight, she is grateful for the impetuosity that spurred them to experience this extraordinary sliver of time together. It now takes all her energy to wake up in the morning and put her shoes on, one at a time, in preparation for the day. But as she closes her eyes at night, she can see his silhouette against the shimmering water of the Mediterranean, throwing a frisbee at his brother, tossing his curly hair away from his eyes as he waves to her and laughs, sounds of pure happiness.

***

TIRAMISU (Italian, from the phrase tira mi su  or  “pick me up”)

An Italian dessert consisting of layers of sponge cake soaked in coffee and brandy or liqueur with powdered chocolate and mascarpone cheese. 

For the cream:

4 large egg yolks

½ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup heavy cream

1 cup mascarpone

  • Whip together egg yolks and ¼ cup sugar until very pale yellow and triple in volume. 
  • In another bowl, whip cream and remaining ¼ cup sugar until soft-medium peaks are created. 
  • Add mascarpone and continue to whip until a spreadable mixture with medium peaks is created. 
  • Gently fold the mascarpone mixture into the sweetened egg yolks and combine.

For the assembly:

1 ¾ cups good espresso 

2 tablespoons rum or cognac

2 tablespoons unsweetened coca powder

24 ladyfingers (store-bought) – easier than baking sponge cake

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate for shaving, if desired

  • Combine espresso and rum in a bowl.
  • Using a sifter, dust the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon cocoa powder.
  • Dip each ladyfinger into the espresso mixture and place, rounded side up, at the bottom of the baking dish until you have an even layer (use half the ladyfingers)
  • Spread half the mascarpone mixture on to the ladyfingers in an even layer. 
  • Repeat with remaining ladyfingers and mascarpone mixture.

Dust top layer with remaining tablespoon of cocoa powder. Top with shaved chocolate, if desired.

Cover with plastic wrap and let chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours (the longer the better) before slicing or scooping to serve.

Life Lessons Learned #1 – It’s All About the Stuffing

It was the fall of 1979. I was a foreign exchange student in what was then still the Soviet Union, in a city that was then called Leningrad. I was twenty-five years old and far too naïve for my age. I had landed in Leningrad in August, in the after-glow of summer. And my memory is one of a place that was a riot of greens and blues and gold: the parks and trees bursting with foliage, the canal waters shimmering as they flowed beneath a myriad of bridges, the gold domes of  buildings ablaze with the kiss of the sun’s rays dancing on their surface. It was a unique moment in history to be permitted to be there, and I was entranced by this beautiful old city, the lovers strolling along its avenues, the street vendors hawking kvass (a strange home-made brew of bread-y beer) and a sense that my personal destiny was going to take a significantly magical turn.

But as September receded into October, the cold and gray of autumn seeped into the air. By mid-October, fall was more like incipient winter, with frigid temperatures, daylight squeezed into a mere four hours between 11 and 3, and stalactite-icicles dangling from frozen bare tree branches. More than that, though, I came to feel what it was like to live in a totalitarian state, when you had to watch every word you said lest you be reported to the KGB, where the bare essentials necessary to live were difficult to come by for the average citizen, and the future held no promise of any change.  People’s souls were drained, as all energy was focused on obtaining food, clothing, shelter, warmth. They would duck out of the office during the day for hours, searching endlessly for staples, joining any line being formed outside a store because something – it didn’t matter what – was being sold. And it was sure to be something “defitsit”, since everything was deficit. The crumbling facades of buildings housed apartments that were carved up into communal living arrangements, several families living in one apartment. I remember buying fruit, coffee, lemons (!) in the dollar stores reserved for foreigners, so that I could give them to my Russian friends.

And so, November slid its way in, and the American exchange students started to think about Thanksgiving. We figured it would be a dinner of tinned sardines, boiled potatoes and bread. But by the grace and kindness of the American consulate, we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner at a dacha somewhere north, outside the city, along the Gulf of Finland.

And this is what I remember of that glorious dinner – an amazing house in the country, covered in snow, its interior alive with color. A fireplace with a roaring fire to warm the very marrow of our chilled bones. And a table laden with, groaning under, the weight of a surplus of food – turkey, wine, vegetables. And, yes – best of all – stuffing. Gelatinous, cornbread, gooey, pre-artisanal, gut-filling Stovetop stuffing. A reminder of home. We sat down together, to eat, and I truly gave thanks that year – for I understood what it meant to be lucky enough to have been born, to grow up, in a society that is a liberal democracy.

Fast forward to May, 1980, a week before I was to return home. I was in a car with two other American students, being driven by a Russian friend. Suddenly, we were surrounded by three government cars, sirens blaring. We stopped and were immediately surrounded by men who dragged us out of the car, separated us from our Russian friend, forced us into one of their cars and drove us to an unmarked building. We were taken to a basement room, no windows, a desk, two chairs. These were pre-cellphone days. We had no means of notifying anyone that we had been taken. We had no way of knowing where we were. No one would know where we had been taken, by whom, why. Our demands to call the consulate were met with smirks and laughs. We had no idea why we had been taken and were terrified for the safety of our Russian friend. This sudden loss of liberty, this assault on the self, the sense of powerlessness – I remember what a gut-wrenching sucker-punch shock it was. Once they started to question us, it became apparent that they thought we were smuggling icons – which we weren’t. And after a few hours, they let us go – out onto the street, just like that, to figure out where we were and how to get back to our dormitory. Our friend was also released. But I will never forget the faces of these Soviet men, how they laughed at their unfettered power over others, their arrogance as they mocked the concept of liberty. This is what happens when there is no redress to the rule of law. This onslaught to one’s sense of dignity – this is what the defenseless feel. We must recognize it, whenever and wherever it rears its head, and we must fight it.

So, yes. There once was a place called Leningrad, circa 1979. This construct of Leningrad is a place and time that lives within my memory. I see it in my mind’s eye. Over the decades since, it has changed its name. It has seen the expansion and contraction of economic, social and political opportunities and freedoms. Other cities, towns and countries like it have seen borders redrawn and names changed, mainly through conflict and wars – all driven by some primal instinct of territoriality and misplaced allegiances to tribe or beliefs. But are we not more than the hunter-gatherers we once were? Does not the existence of music, art, literature, speak of something greater, something intangible that resides within us – a soul perhaps? We are human beings, capable of kindness, love, empathy. We have the ability to dream, to ponder creation. To feel wonder. We should, in the end, be able to rise above divisions we have constructed out of air.

So as we approach Thanksgiving, and we sit down to the table with family and friends, let us remember that we are each but one small breath in the living organism that is humanity. Be kind to all outside your door as you dig into that stuffing.

Stuffing Recipe

Who am I kidding – get a box of Stovetop stuffing and follow the recipe on the carton.

Travels with J

            Another beer, he asks.

            Sure, I reply.

            He gets up to go to the bar for refills. We are sitting at a table in a dimly lit brewpub. It is packed with young twenty-somethings enjoying their summer in Prague, feasting on all the sensory delights the city has to offer. I am wedged into a corner, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.

            He’s back with our glasses, slides mine over. What’s up?

            I feel ridiculous, I say. I am thirty years older than any individual here and so grateful for the atmospheric semi-darkness.

            Age is just a number, he responds. And just like that, his mouth slides into the sardonic, lop-sided grin he knows is irresistible to women, his mother included.

I look at this man-child and am filled with wonder. His face is now all hard angles, framed by long brown curls. He is coaxing a beard into existence – its soft, fine hairs haven’t decided which way to grow. His hazel eyes are clear, coolly appraising his surroundings. Always a bit aloof to social situations, yet still enjoying them. My twenty-nine year old son. On the cusp of the rest of his life.

            I squeeze his forearm. That is all the PDA I am allowed these days.

            So, what about that girl you were dating, I ask.

            Awkward segue, Mom.

            Can’t blame me for trying. So?

            He thinks and I wait. He continues. So. There are three types of women: those we like, those who we are liked by, and those we probably can never have. I tend to give into my impulses for the last category, realizing it is an insane lunacy.

            Ouch.

            He smiles. But, Mom, only unfulfilled love can be romantic.

            Oh, my son, I think to myself, you are in for a world of hurt.

*

            Are you okay? I dimly hear him.

            I try to say yes, but my mouth doesn’t work – I am white-knuckling the edge of my passenger seat with both hands in this sleek super-powered BMW we rented. We are barreling down the autobahn in Germany, hitting 90 mph, somewhere between Munich and Berlin. I can’t be sure – my eyes are squeezed shut.

            I open them and check on J. He is relaxed, smiling broadly, both hands on the wheel, clearly enjoying the sensation of speed on the open road. The closest to pure joy than I have ever seen him. Me, I’m sweating.

            It’s not that I don’t trust him, his skills, his judgment. It’s just that I am risk-averse when it comes to sport – I don’t skydive, rock-climb or ski downhill. I don’t have confidence in my physical abilities. Life choices, on the other hand, are a different matter. There isn’t a bad decision I have not made – leaving a comfortable profession mid-career to chase after several questionable occupational dreams. 

            J is the opposite. He loves the thrill of any new adventure but carefully plots the course of his professional path. His dreams, his destiny – he measures these out. He has plans, which he constantly tweaks, but his goals are clear – a master’s degree by this date, a certain amount of success at that age, good money along the way, more trips to take, perhaps a wife to wed. Iterations on a theme. He doesn’t divulge the specifics but shares the broad strokes with me at times. He is excited at the possibilities that life holds in store. Perhaps a little bit scared of failure. That he doesn’t talk about so much.

            But, for the present, he is in control of this vehicle, a heady moment, flying towards our next destination. And he is happy.

*

We are almost comatose in the shade of the Great Pyramid of Giza, languidly swatting away flies, ignoring the pleas of vendors, attempting to restore our bodies to some semblance of life in the blazing glare of the sun.

            Over two million blocks of stone, he reads.

            However did they build it, I ponder.

            With blood, sweat and tears, no doubt, he answers. Ramps? Aliens? Human ingenuity? All this to honor a king and lay him to rest.

            A grand tomb. 

            Or a resting place between two worlds.

            You think?

            He shrugs. Maybe we make the best of this world and shouldn’t worry about the next. Our actions here speak more to how we are remembered, as opposed to any grave marker. 

            How would you like to be remembered?

            He leans back against the stones, thinks. That I brought a measure of justice to the world. Only then can there be peace.

            Noble aspiration, son of mine, I jest.

            He laughs. Well, he says, would you rather erase the presence of someone who was never there?

            Suddenly, I am chilled.

*

Fireworks explode above our heads. We are jammed along the waterfront with thousands of other spectators, looking up at the sky over Melbourne. It is swathed in color and light. The shouts of the crowd and the boom of the show mesh into a seamless roar. I look at my son and my heart mirrors the tumult of sound and light above us. The love I feel for him is all encompassing, awesome in the joy it brings yet terrifying in its accompanying vulnerability.  

I look at the couples surrounding us, arms around each other, kissing. I have had my share of the highs and lows of romantic love – will he call, did he mean this when he said that, is he the one, am I settling, are we getting married? All that pales in comparison to the feeling you have when you first hold your child in your hands. Your heart expands like a rubber-band – infinite, endless, limitless. You glimpse the soul of this being you have created and are humbled. And you enter into an unspoken covenant to protect this pure spirit.

After that comes the sheer joy of watching this child grow. Each moment of his life is a marvel – watching him score that first goal and the little happy dance that accompanied it; his hand in yours as you walk him to his first day of school; his eyes searching for you in a crowd, his relief when he finds you; sharing his triumphs in school; enjoying his circle of friends; encouraging his semester abroad and being there when he calls for encouragement to see it through. Watching him as he develops into a caring, sensitive person. Anticipating his future happiness. It is the purest kind of love I have ever experienced.

The heavens light up with another burst of fireworks.

This is great, he says, as we edge closer together.

            Yes, I whisper, it is.

*

We are wandering the streets of Beijing, two specks of flotsam and jetsam among the city’s thousands, trying to decipher street signs as we search for a restaurant we absolutely needed to eat at.

Let’s go right, he says.

Are you sure? According to the map –

He gives me the look.

In a submerged groove in my brain, where rational thinking resides, I am aware of the fact that he has taken two years of Mandarin in college, that he is much better at navigating than I am, and that, if need be, he could actually ask someone for directions. I understand all that, and still, I feel the urge to control the situation. I am, after all, the mother here.

Also – he is stubborn and I am hungry – not a good mix.

Why don’t we, I begin again –

Mom, please, I know what to do.

I think we should ask someone – we seem to be lost.

That’s when he pops out the grin.

We aren’t lost. I know where you are and you know where I am.

And just like that, the tension breaks. 

I gaze at this impossibly wise young man in astonishment – where did he come from?

*

These are the conversations I imagine having with my son. As it is, I travel the world keenly feeling the stillness of the empty chair beside me. He is gone, so I am left carrying him with me wherever I go – his heart beating inside mine.

            Loss of a child – a lesson my mother never wanted me to learn.