Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Rose and the Lilies

When I was in my 20s, I had an awful boyfriend who had only two things in his favor:  he taught me how to parallel park, and his mother was wonderful. Other than that, well, thank God I didn’t marry him, because I would be writing this from the loony bin, and you know how bad the Internet service is there.

He taught me to parallel park because he lived in a cramped part of the city, it was the only parking available, I could not do it successfully, and he liked to shout instructions at me in a disdainful manner, so it all worked out. And now, while I can drive only passably, I can park anywhere. But enough about him and my skill acquired through scorn. On to his mother.

Golly, Rosemary was a great lady. She was spunky and sassy and opinionated, but in a way that was always motherly and kind, at least to me, not that I always deserved it. Her kids were all variations of her husband (mean drips like my boyfriend, or just general all-around drips, like the dad), but she was a rose among thorns. I don’t know if any of them ever appreciated her, but I did.

I would have married that guy, just because of her, but she died before we got around to it. I was at her deathbed. We played a Cardinals baseball game on a transistor radio that we held up to her ear, and then, eventually, the game was over, and she was over, too. It was just a few months after my father had died, and all of that seemed to make a good enough reason not to get shouted at by the mean drip any more. Besides, I had learned to parallel park by that time, and without her around, there just didn't seem to be much point to any of it.

I thought of Rose yesterday, and I haven’t done that in a long, long time. The reason was that, after years of trying to get lilies of the valley to grow in my front yard, they finally did, this year. When I walked outside and saw all of them, going crazy against the edge of the sidewalk and looking like they had plans to grow right through the front door, I thought of Rose. She had loved lilies of the valley, and they had bloomed profusely for her, those couple magic weeks a year. I can remember walking up her front sidewalk and seeing them, there on my left and for as far as I could see, it seemed.  I can’t remember why I just walked into my own kitchen fifteen minutes ago, or what I was looking for when I got there, but I can remember those flowers, clear as an Instagram, which hadn't been invented yet.

My lilies are only blooming, I realized yesterday, because our $15 tree from the City of Minneapolis has grown enough, these past two years, to give them the required amount of shade. I put this together in my best scientific method by realizing that the flowers on the other side of the front path, the ones without shade, were not growing, but were looking as miserable as the whole bunch of them had looked, all these years, until yesterday.

As soon as I made the connection between the lilies of my memory and that dear departed woman who was almost my mother-in-law, God help me, I sat down, fast, on my own front walk. I thought of all those old-timey gravestones in cemeteries that say “Say a Hail Mary for Me,” and I said one for her. And then I remembered one time when I took some significant umbrage with something she had said on that very topic. She had mentioned something about going out to cemeteries for an afternoon and tending the graves of relatives. I shot off a hasty remark, in my mid-twenties-I-know-everything way: “What a waste of time,” I snorted. I was nothing if not productive in those days. “They’re dead, what do they care?”

Because she was a very kind lady, she settled for giving me the fish eye instead of a smack on the back of my head, which I richly deserved. And now the cherry tree has shaded the ground, and I wish I knew where her grave was, because I would take these newly blooming flowers straight to her, and offer up a few more Hail Marys while I was at it. Yesterday, I had to settle for just the prayer, and a long-overdue apology, sent out, vaguely, to wherever she might be. I cut a few of the flowers and put them in a tiny vase on the kitchen counter. 

Every time I've walked in the room the past couple days, wondering why I’m there or what I’m looking for, I’ve seen the flowers. I've offered them to her - these delicate little marvels of complicated architecture and saintly smell. I wish I could see her again. I wish I could listen to a baseball game with her, one called by Jack Buck and Mike Shannon. But still, with all of that, I'm really, really glad that I didn’t marry her son. And she probably is, too.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Miranda Rights of Second Helpings, and other Food Rules I Have Known

I served a hot meal in a theater lobby to 30 hungry teenaged actors last night, an activity that involved planning a menu to include vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options. Since I was paying for this repast from my own threadbare pocket, all provisions were secured at my new favorite sub-bargain haunt, Aldi. I’m proud that I’ve overcome my anxiety over the hostage-release situation they’ve got going on with the shopping carts (hint: never leave home without a quarter) and have embraced the joys of browsing endless stacks of about-to-expire jars of sauerkraut, shipped directly from the headquarters in Mülheim an der Ruhr.

After all the planning, cooking and endless schlepping, I had, last night, finally arrived at the moment when everyone was tucking in and filling their pie holes, so I began to mingle. “Mom, they’re confused,” my daughter told when I walked by. “They don’t know if they’re allowed to go back for seconds.” I was struck dumb. Did these adolescents not understand the very nature of a Julie Kendrick Meal Production, in which seconds are strongly encouraged, as are fourths and twelfths, not to mention doggie bags to take along for a little nibble on the drive home?

I turned to one of my daughter’s friends, a girl who has eaten many a temporary-price-reduction toss-of-the-dice meal at my home. “Tess,” I enjoined, “You know that I never serve anything without first declaring there’s plenty more where that came from. It’s like the Miranda Rights of eating at my house.” Tess, who is no mere “yes” woman, not even to a crazypants like Mary Katherine’s mom, pondered this assertion. “That’s true,” she said, head tilted to one side. “Unless you tell me it’s the last Clementine and I have to eat it right now so you can put the bowl in the dishwasher.”

She had me there, did little Tess. My highest hostess accolades go the guest who Finishes it Up, thus saving me the battle to find a matching Tupperware lid and elbow out some real estate in the refrigerator.

As I dragged all the dirty dishes up the back porch later that night, I thought more about our discussion of Food Rules. Everyone has them, especially the truly batshit people who claim they don’t have any. I am a 20-year child care volunteer at the Crisis Nursery, and if you want to see some truly rigid Food Rules, ones that make a rabbi at Passover look like a Unitarian ordering a bacon cheeseburger,  then spend some time eating meals with preschoolers. No touching. No mixing. Nothing funny looking. Ever. Preferred color of food? Tan. Preferred method of serving: Plain. And more plain. And even plainer than that.

We have such lovely volunteers at the nursery, and many of them gather with co-workers, church groups or friends to serve meals to the kids. They work so hard to make things special, but they often forget that for the six-and-under set, “special” is simple. We had a volunteer this past Sunday who brought in a giant bowl of strawberries and a box of graham crackers. Alice Waters has never received such accolades for her swanky fare; our kids could not get enough of this lady’s snack.

Volunteers who forget the “simplicity” standard do so at their peril. A few months ago, the nursery had an enthusiastic volunteer cooking group from a local food company. They had clearly scoured their test kitchen recipe library for Fun Foods for Kids. They arrived with “pizza muffins,” a concoction in which pepperoni and cheese had been placed in the hollow of a biscuit, then baked in a muffin tin. In case you aren’t grasping the full horror here, it was All Mixed Together. The children reacted as if they were being served pig cheeks, with the pig head still attached. The volunteers were crestfallen. But kids don’t change their rules for anyone, not even the company that invented Lucky Charms.

In addition to my child care work at the Nursery, I get together with a group of friends four times a year to make Saturday night supper for the kids. Our menu, which has been honed to perfection over the years, never varies: turkey meat on Hawaiian rolls. Carrot sticks and dip. Veggie straws. Clementine sections. And then, just to show that simple doesn’t have to mean dull, we roll in our big finish – chocolate pudding cups with – oh yes – squirts of whipped cream delivered straight from the Reddi-wip canister.

Sometimes on Saturday nights, as I watch the kids’ delight as whipped cream is squirted to their exact specifications, I think about the many people all over the world who are enjoying fine meals at that very moment. They’re sniffing corks, asking for a few more shavings of truffle, or setting up their camera for an Instagram shot of course number three-out-of-thirty. But, watching those kids smear their entire faces with our simple-but-worth-it dessert, I doubt that anyone is enjoying their food more than they are, and that’s the only Food Rule that really matters, at least to me.