I couldn’t peel it; my hands shook.

I ran them under cool water and dried them on my favorite blue striped linen towel hanging off the oven door handle — the one that I never use, that I’m afraid to stain lest it cease being the new, fresh, perfect towel that it is. Still, my hands trembled, and when I tried to peel the morning’s freshly boiled egg, I failed. I brushed the shell away with my thumbs to coax it off like my grandmother used to do when she made eggs for me in the chipped black and white enamel saucepan of my childhood. Instead, I gouged it violently, my thumb piercing straight through membrane, glair, crumbling orange yolk with its halo of overcooked green, until all that was left of the egg was the suggestion of sustenance.

My throat tightened. I fought back tears, and laughed at the utter ridiculousness of it: to cry over a mangled egg is inane and emotionally frivolous. Boiling an egg on this particular morning during this particular winter was all I could possibly manage, and I couldn’t even manage that.

We call one another good eggs, tough or rotten eggs….We walk on eggs to spare fragile egos….We find the bestowal of an egg to be expressive of wildly divergent emotions: handed over graciously it betokens favor; delivered at high velocity it plainly indicates disgust, said Robert Farrar Capon. I add to this the egg’s subtext of Life, cap L, and hope: in The English Patient, when David Caravaggio, erstwhile spy and thumbless thief, produces a single, purloined fresh egg for Hana, it means that the war is nearly over. When he drops it and it splatters at his feet, we know that the war will continue, however briefly, and more will die.

I grew up having an egg every morning of my life. My father and I sat side-by-side at our Danish modern kitchen counter in Forest Hills, our backs to the Chambers stove where my mother silently soft-boiled two of them for three minutes, cracked them over slices of cold diet white bread stuffed like cotton balls into two brown melamine egg cups, and set them down in front of us. Years later, in the egg white omelety 1980s, I began to curtail my egg intake because of the genetically high cholesterol I was gifted from my mother. In the 90s, I discovered oeufs en meurette at the defunct La Goulue in  Manhattan, and would have them once a year when I took my mother to her favorite restaurant for Mother’s Day. In the early 2000s, I married Susan, who taught me how to make a meal out of a perfectly poached egg on garlic-rubbed sourdough toast drizzled with olive oil; we ate this at least once or twice a month.  In the mid-early-2000s, when I began to write full time from home and was blessed with a chicken-keeping neighbor, I started making a single boiled egg every morning: I would sprinkle it with sea salt, roll it around in a shallow stoneware dish of dukkah, and eat it standing up in the kitchen, the dog at my feet. And then, like clockwork, my mother would call.

I can’t talk, I’d say. I’m having breakfast. I’ll call you back.

What are you having? she’d ask.

An egg, I’d say, my mouth full.

I’ll stay on the phone with you while you eat, she’d say. I’ll do the talking. 

And she did: sometimes happy, sometimes angry, often raging against one person or another who had somehow done her wrong. There were laundry people who used the wrong detergent, cab drivers who took her the wrong way to her destination, makeup that she’d ordered that didn’t arrive when she needed it, an accompanist who didn’t return her call, the Jewish deli that forgot to remove the peas from her matzo ball soup. There were old friends of sixty years with whom she was engaged in constant battles, bus drivers who drove too slowly, bus drivers who drove too quickly, the cable company who was trying to bilk her, her long-deceased ex-husband — my father — who she was convinced was crazy, her second husband who didn’t make provisions for her before he died of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Perry Mason, who she was completely in love with even though 1) he didn’t actually exist in real life; 2) Raymond Burr was dead; and 3) when he wasn’t dead, he was gay.

It wouldn’t matter to me, she’d add, and continue on.

I have to go, I’d say, wiping the dukkah crumbs from my mouth.

After her fall in December — after the surgery and the rehab and the return to her home with a caregiver — her morning calls came earlier. A pre-dawn text from the caregiver would come in first: She’s calling you in five, she’d write. Just FYI. 

By January, cartons of eggs — my neighbor’s chicken eggs, a plastic tray of quail eggs, six duck eggs that I’d bought over the holidays as a treat — began to pile up in the refrigerator, shoved into the back alongside half-empty jars of Hellman’s mayonnaise and squashed tubes of anchovy paste; I lost track of them, and couldn’t remember which ones were old and which were fresh. I forgot to eat breakfast, and sometimes lunch. I’d look up from my computer at three o’clock, the sky outside my office beginning to change, and realize: I hadn’t eaten anything all day. My skinny jeans began to hang off me.

You look terrific, my mother would say, when I’d come to visit every week. You have cheekbones again. 

How are you sustaining yourself, a friend asked me. What’s the easiest way for you?

Eggs, I told her. But I have no appetite. 

Don’t you understand, she said. Eggs are life. They are perfect. Boil one for yourself. Every morning. Even if you don’t eat anything else until dinner, you’ll be okay.

The next day, after Susan left for work and the dog had been walked, I took out the carton containing the ones from my neighbor; they were large, small, narrow (one of her girls lays eggs that are nearly flat), round. They were blue, green, and white. There were brown speckles on some, and bits of feather stuck to others.

I placed a small green one in my favorite ancient Le Creuset butter warmer. I filled it with water, put it on the stove, and when it boiled I covered it, removed it from the heat, and set the timer for twelve minutes. When the bell went off, I drained the pot, ran the egg under cool water until I could handle it, stood over the sink, and tried to gently peel it. The phone rang four times and stopped.

I peeled.

The phone rang again and stopped.

I peeled.

The phone rang again, and I plunged my thumb through the shell; it came out the other side. I cried at the absurdity of it: I was a food writer who couldn’t even feed myself an egg, or provide myself with the most basic form of life-giving sustenance. The egg is arguably the world’s most perfect food and I had destroyed mine. I dropped its remains into the butter warmer, and put the pan in the sink. I looked out the window at my backyard, partially covered with snow.

The cold New England winter sun streamed into the kitchen; it was a quiet time of day.

The phone rang again; I let it go.

I picked up what was left of the egg, and did the best I could with it; it was misshapen in places, broken, flecked with shards of shell. I dropped it back into the tiny pan, sprinkled it with sea salt and dukkah and ate every last drop with my fingers, savoring its promise of sustenance, its imperfection, its symbol of the maternal.

 

 

 

 

{ 10 comments }

Look for the Helpers

January 4, 2017 · 13 comments

 

Am I safe here? the woman whispered.

She was tall and blonde and classically northern midwestern looking, and had come from just over the Wisconsin border to attend a memoir class I was teaching at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.

Am I safe? 

Her voice quavered; strangers — all of us — shook our heads.

Yes.

It was early in November, the day after an epic, divisive moment in time. We were in a beautiful classroom at a remarkable literary center in a lovely city filled with people of every color, religion, and political persuasion. Minneapolis is a place I had long wanted to visit, and to teach at The Loft was a long-held dream of mine, ever since I’d heard Natalie Goldberg talk about it more than twenty-five years ago. And on this morning, sustained by strong coffee and ensconced in a building that at its core is devoted to writers and books and the written word, a small handful of us who had never before set eyes on each other assured this woman that yes, she was safe. 

If not here, I said, then where. 

I recognized the telltale signs of anxiety that I know so well: for me, it comes from the unshakable certainty that one is unsafe. The nervous shifting, the eyes darting, the foot tapping, the frantic water drinking, the shallow breathing, the coat thrown on and off and on and off. Anything to keep moving, to keep running. For the anxious, stillness and quiet can be as unhinging as a night terror.

Add to this the fact that memoir — the teaching of it, the talking about it, the writing it: the permission, the memories, the emotional fortitude that it takes to plunge deep — is a gnarly bit of business; at best, it’s fraught. At worst, it can make the strongest of us feel ungrounded and unmoored and like our limbs are made of jello. Those of us who write it — who come back to the form over and over again — do so because we can’t not. We do it to uncoil our stories, to know our truths, to understand who we are through the specter of who we, and the people around us, once were.

Am I safe here.

Yes, we said. In my classroom, in my space, you are safe. But step outside into the wide world, and who knows about any of us, at any time.

(I didn’t mention that.)

By the time I arrived in Iowa for my next book event, I was depleted; I felt like an IV bag that had its contents forcibly squeezed out of it. I was shaky and nervous and unsure and exhausted. My writer/chef/restaurateur/publisher/county supervisor/devoted Unitarian friend Kurt picked me up in Cedar Rapids and dropped me off at my hotel, where I tried to nap; I met my writer/journalist/born-and-raised evangelical friend Lyz for lunch. No three people could come from more opposing histories, with more divergent views on everything from politics to religion; in fact, we have more in common than we know. We talked about safety and writing, about division and how to move forward into the unknown in a way that is sustaining and nurturing for all of us, not just some of us. We talked about being ferocious and fierce and kind and devoted to community and family — that those qualities aren’t mutually exclusive — and sitting opposite Lyz, my hands shook as I ate my carrot ginger soup at a lovely little cafe in Iowa City; I couldn’t manage anything more substantial than that.

Look for the helpers, Kurt said to me that night, quoting the late Fred Rogers; it was Kurt’s wife’s birthday and he had cold-smoked a pork shoulder for ten hours, and braised it in lamb stock into which he had sliced a few local Iowa apples. It was an earthy dinner, rooted in place and ground. Another couple — they were much older; we’ve seen it all, they said — came over to join us for Kim’s celebration, and to drink to friendship and safety and sustenance.

Look for the helpers, Kurt kept saying. Remember that.

I returned home from my book tour in early December. A few days later, just as I was beginning to unpack and start work on my next book, Motherland, my mother fell in her apartment. Surgeries. Rehab. A treacherous, bottom line-driven healthcare system designed to fail the people who need it most: its seniors, its children, its poor. What Dickens called, in A Christmas Carol, the surplus population.

What are we going to do, I cried to Susan after sixteen hours in the emergency room, and thirty without sleep. My mother never planned for a catastrophic event; my mother has always assumed it would happen to someone else.

Look for the helpers.

I did, and they were there: phonecalls, emails, advice from people I’ve known from my childhood in sleepaway camp, from my social worker yoga friends, from my neighbors, from a lawyer-turned-food-writer friend with a penchant for spreadsheets and information gathering. Facebook messages flew back and forth, and good wishes and prayers came from places I would have never thought would send them.

Weeks later, Susan and I tried to assemble a Christmas of sorts, with cousins around our table, wine, and simple food; it was a quiet time. The morning after Christmas, we were back in the emergency room, this time with Susan and a kidney stone. Sitting next to her, holding her hand, this person I’ve spent nearly twenty years with, and watching her in such excruciating, withering pain, it felt like it was just us and the world and a universe that was hitting us, repeatedly, with what one of my friends calls the shit stick. Humans are a beautiful, broken, feeble, complicated lot; our minds overtake our bodies. Our bodies overtake our minds. In the last year, I have had three healthy friends younger than I suffer heart attacks; they all survived, one barely. One of my dearest friends had brain surgery after collapsing in an exercise class. Another friend had a hiking accident that easily could have killed her. My cousin was diagnosed with cancer. A friend’s brother was nearly lost in a car accident. We put Addie, our sweet old yellow Lab to sleep in July, the day before Susan’s birthday. Our other dog was diagnosed with cancer; our cat stopped eating. We live in what Anne Lamott once referred to as the waiting room of the emergency ward.

Talking about food — the next great trend; the next cool technique — feels frivolous. How can I cook? How can I nourish myself and the people I love and my community?

How can I eat?

The world spins forward. Together, we lurch into the future, into that place where, now more than ever, we need the nurturing and the sustenance.

At 3:08 am each morning since my mother’s accident, I am catapulted awake; I hear Susan breathing softly next to me and the dog snoring on the floor. This is my home, the place that grounds me, that tethers me to the earth. This is my family.

The alarm will ring in two hours.

My student’s words careen around my Monkey Mind like a broken record.

Am I safe here?

I lay in the silence; I listen to the quiet.

I try to assure myself as I assured her.

You are safe here. 

I doze until the sun comes up, and I begin again.

 

 

 

 

 

{ 13 comments }

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