Ghosts at My Table

October 21, 2015 · 17 comments


In the fall of last year, Susan and I had a friend visit us for a few days; Simon, who is a remarkable line and watercolor artist specializing in, among other things, dig-side archeological academic renderings and sketches, was going through a challenging time, and we invited him to spend the weekend with us in Connecticut. On Sunday, before we put our friend back on the train for home, we visited the Yale Center for British Art, where, fortuitously, a show called Of Green Leaf, Bird, & Flower: Artists’ Books and the Natural World, which examine(d) the intersection of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day, was on exhibition. Many of the artists’ books were those belonging to amateur naturalists — women and men, mostly from the so-called leisure class, who, dating back to the late 1500s, took their pencils and nibs out into the fields and hills, and watched and looked and drew and clipped and tacked what they found into books. The books — leather-bound, small, like the modern-day Moleskines that many of us carry in our back pockets — were stained with time and sweat. They had a distinctly personal and almost illicit aura; looking at them made me feel both exhilarated and wary, like I was reading someone’s diary and being transported to their past.

There was an audio component to the exhibition: the curator, Elisabeth Fairman, included selections from The British Library’s Sonic Migrations, a massive collection of recorded environmental and wildlife sounds, which complemented the show: you could not only see amateur naturalist sketches of the European Robin, you could listen to it too. Among the audio selections was a birdsong — I don’t know whose it was — recorded in rural England in the early 1940s. As I stood there, headphones on and captivated by the sweet singing, I began to hear a distant low drone, a rumble I thought I was imagining until it grew louder and louder, disappearing for a moment and then returning only vaguely and remotely, until it was gone in a haze. According to the accompanying exhibit information, a squadron of RAF planes had flown over the recording site, maybe a field somewhere near Sussex — my geographical and admittedly romantic guess; Virgina Woolf’s Rodmell was in Sussex — on their way to Germany to execute a bombing mission.

Did they return? Was that inadvertent recording the last earthly trace of one, or two, or more of them?

I listened to it over and over again. I called Susan and Simon over to hear it. We passed the headphones back and forth and stared at each other, a little stunned and teary and wide-eyed, as though we had not only seen the past and heard it, we had somehow seen through it, from a different place in time and space. It was thrilling; it was terrifying. It made my stomach plunge and my throat tighten and the hair on my neck stand up. More than anything else, I found myself longing to know their fate: what were their names? Where were they from? What had they eaten that day?

Did they come home?


Lately, I’ve been turning a lot to the past, and considering its significant role in the present: I’m in the end-throes of writing my second memoir (an explanation for my infrequent appearance here), some of which takes place in a long-ago time that was not mine per se, but that led up to, influenced, and became mine. Discussions of craft aside, how is it possible to write memoir from a time so distant that one has not actually, physically, been there? Because we — all of us, to a number — exist in a world entombed by story and history; none of us is born in a vacuum. We are the sum of the people and the stories that came before us; their histories make us who we are, for better and worse. I know that my father, a night fighter pilot during World War II who knew how to fly a plane before he could drive a car, came home on leave and was picked up by my grandfather at Floyd Bennett Airfield in Brooklyn; I know that when a Marine guard saluted my father as he came through the civilian gate, my grandfather watched closely, and said to his son, Velcome home, Captain America. I know this not because I was there, which I was not, but because my father fed me this story over and over again, like pabulum. And because I was not there, I can only imagine the supper that my grandmother had prepared for his return, because on the one hand, he told me she did, but on the other, she fed it to many of us — myself included —repeatedly through the years, as though it were a sacrament, an edible talisman, an anchor: chicken soup strained and strained again until it shimmered like liquid gold in the early evening light that came through the window off the fire escape facing Coney Island; the soup chicken, its skin removed, eaten warm with a slice of challah; a piece of chocolate cake from Ebinger’s; a glass of Sweet-Touch-Nee tea.

(They were not so big on vegetables in my grandmother’s house.)

It’s inevitably at the table where what we came from and who we turned into gets spun like silk into stories. It’s why we cling to the table like the life preserver it is: this is not news. When I eat Hungarian goulash and spaetzle, my maternal grandmother, Clara, is feeding it to me, and like always, she’s forgotten to take off her Persian lamb hat and is sweating over the stove; I’ve missed her every single minute of every day since she died in 1982, when I was in college. I cook her food; I keep her alive. When I make chicken soup and I strain it and strain it and strain it again the way my father’s mother, Bertha, did, I can hear her padding around in her house coat and slippers — the scuffed pearl ones that looked like ballet shoes — behind me in her Brooklyn kitchen, heaving open the heavy door of her ancient, bulbous Frigidaire, its vast metal handle wrapped around its fat waist like a girdle.

When you make the meatballs and gravy or apple strudel or chicken and dumplings or sausage and peppers or fried chicken or potato pierogi or whatever it is you associate with a particular person who has long since departed our carnal world, you bring them back from the dead. You taste their food, you catch a whiff of their Aqua-Net, you hear the shuffling of their heels on the linoleum; you close the gap not only between then and now, but heaven and earth, like the unintended, ghostly hum of pilots flying to Germany seventy-five years ago, fate unknown.



It was a gorgeous night — all peepers and frogs, and dry as a bone after two days hot and wet enough to melt glass — and I spent much of it sitting on our front porch with Addie, our [almost] fifteen-year-old Yellow Lab, who came to us at seven-years-old having been dumped by her people after a lifetime of churning out backyard puppies for sale. She moves slowly these days; she’s a quintessential velcro dog, attached to my hip by love and affection and the hope of additional kibble falling from the sky. On this particular night, Susan was on the train, on her way home from New York; Petey, our terrier, was on an overnight at doggie day camp to blow off some hysterical puppy steam. Addie and I sat together in the quiet, just looking; watching the sharp slant of the early evening summer sun on the garden. Older dogs do this: by their pace alone they force you to slow down, to pay attention, to lift your head to catch a brief cloud of honeysuckle and lilac passing by on the breeze.

When I got up to come into the house, Addie stood up with me and I held the storm door open for her; she waited for me to go in first, as if to say After you, but I ushered her in ahead of me. She and I are very formal that way, but she possesses both the age and the wisdom that, in my opinion, always goes first.  I picked up her bowl, gave it a quick wash and added a cup of kibble, a dollop of mashed pumpkin to keep her ancient skids greased, and two pills: a square, brown anti-inflammatory for her hips, and a natural supplement which mimics the odious Prednisone she’s had to take from time to time. I mixed everything together and she stood watching me — she knows the stirring sound and the hand motion and what comes next — as I put the bowl down. She waited, looking me square in the eye and wagging, and I did what I always do right before she eats: I kissed her on the head and told her she’s a very good girl. She won’t eat unless I do this; I have no idea where the ritual comes from — perhaps her previous owners forced her to wait dutifully before she ate, as a way to wield some sort of power over her — but I’m glad to turn the act into something joyful and loving rather than controlling, and she’s glad to receive.


That night, after feeding Addie, I realized that I knew the exact size and shape of her pills, and that I could draw them in great detail if someone asked me to; I can tell you exactly how much pureed pumpkin attaches itself to the side of her bowl at every meal, and how it must be scrubbed out before I feed her again. I can describe the sound the kibble makes when it’s folded into the pumpkin (muffled, like pebbles on a trampoline), and the crinkle of the bag where her treats are kept. I can tell you about the face she makes after she’s eaten — the way her brown eyes change from inquisitive and hopeful to soft and loving — and that it’s exactly eight minutes from her taking a post-dinner biscuit to her hip-aching climb onto the sofa, where she spends half an hour licking a favorite pillow while she digests, keeping a watch on us for the rest of the evening until we all file down the hallway as a family, one-by-one, and get into our respective beds — humans in ours; dogs in theirs.


I can tell you all of this in exact and mind-numbing detail, but I cannot tell you the number of scoops of coffee I put into my Chemex every morning; I cannot tell you how differently the eggs from my neighbor’s Araucana chickens feel in my hand versus the ones that come from her Rhode Island Reds; I can’t tell you how long it takes ghee to melt in my late mother-in-law’s cast iron Griswold pan set over medium heat. I can’t tell you into which pepper mill I’ve put the Tellicherry peppercorns (my favorite) and in which pinch bowl the kosher salt is sitting. I make coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast almost every morning; I saute something in hot ghee nearly every day, and I salt and pepper it. Which means that somewhere along the line, I’ve stopped paying attention to the most mundane activities — the daily work — of my life.

I could claim to be busy, so very busy, because, like most of us, I am, although probably no more than you. I’m writing a lot these days, finishing a manuscript and making notes for the one that will follow it. I just returned from a glorious week in Oregon at a writer’s workshop, and the loose ends and logistics I had to organize before leaving for the west coast nearly undid me: there were Uber apps to download and car services to arrange, manuscripts to be printed out, broken printers to curse at, keys and swipe cards that were not to be lost, and passwords to be remembered for my iCloud, my cell phone, my Skype account, my email accounts, my mother’s email account, my bank account, my Twitter feed, Instagram, and Facebook.

The last thing I could tell you is how one eggshell feels compared to another, or which pepper mill is holding which peppercorn. But I can tell you what Addie’s pills look like, and the sound her food makes when it hits the bowl, the softening of her eyes when the oxytocin starts to course through her body, and the rumbling, midnight snore that comes out of her like ujjayi breath.

It’s taken Addie to show me when I’m not paying attention to the routines of my life. And how, in a world that prizes exceptionalisim — the big, the fast, the overbooking and the overextension and the hyperconnection that short-circuits our analog human brain — it is the unremarkable and the quiet that we clandestinely crave, as if it were the most dangerous, threatening thing of all.






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