My mother and I have a longstanding joke — not really a joke so much as an observation — that my beloved grandmother, Clara, who died in April of 1982 when I was at college, was among the world’s great fallers.
Of all the stories of my grandmother falling, my mother particularly likes to tell about the time in the late Fifties when she came home from a weekend on Cape Cod and found her mother sitting in the living room with her arm in a sling.
“What happened, Ma?” my mother said.
“I fell off the television set,” my grandmother answered.
“What were you doing on the television set?”
“I was standing on it, so I could dust the crown molding.”
As a child, I remember my grandmother falling constantly; sometimes, she would be standing in front of our stove, humming to herself, about to broil the beef liver she was making me for dinner, and spontaneously break into a soft shoe. One foot would get stuck behind the other and down she’d go like a sack of potatoes, with me and my Airedale, Chips, watching her. Other times, she’d be marching down the street on one of her daily neighborhood constitutionals — she believed in marching Like a soldier, she used to say— which is what she was doing the afternoon that she tripped in front of our local dry cleaner’s; down she went, only then it was more serious – she landed on her elbow, fractured it, and had surgery a day later. A few years later, she fell on her way into the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street, the night we’d taken her to hear two of my parents’ friends — musicians with the Houston Philharmonic — play Beethoven at Carnegie Hall with Itzhak Perlman. Grandma pushed herself up to a sitting position near the bar, helped by three fake Cossacks who had just finished delivering bowls of borscht to a nearby table. She dusted herself off, ordered a plate of blinchik, and had dinner.
When my mother talks about my grandmother’s propensity for falling, it’s a way of objectifying her, but also keeping her alive, and keeping her older. Memories of my grandmother’s tumbles — she was never hurt, except for that one time in front of the dry cleaner’s — are always accompanied by my mother’s eye-rolling chortles and the certain belief that she fell because she wanted to, or because she was too busy trying to march like a soldier, or because she was looking for attention. Or because she was foolish enough to stand on the burled walnut console television in order to dust the crown molding while my mother was off on Cape Cod, enjoying herself just a little bit too much, while my grandmother was stuck at home in their dim apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
This wasn’t lost on me back at the end of December when, after an incredibly trying year, Susan and I rented a light-splashed loft in the Sausalito hills. We didn’t do much more than sleep — I was getting over the first of three bouts of flu that knocked me on my ass this winter — and cook, read, and see a few friends. The day before we were leaving for home, I awoke to four messages on my cell phone, left in the middle of the night.
I’m at the hospital, my mother said. I fell. Like grandma. I don’t know how. I don’t know what happened.
I could hear it in her voice: she was scared, and embarrassed.
I fell. Like grandma.
I was three thousand miles away, staring out a wall of windows at the Marin foothills; my mother fell, on the other side of the country. Did she bang her head? Did she slip? Did she faint? Emergency rooms are notoriously non-plussed when it comes to connecting fallen mothers with their grown daughters who are off joyriding on another coast while they’re laying there, broken and bleeding.
She called again while I was dialing her, and this time, got me; she was fine. Bruised, but okay. She was severely dehydrated. She was hooked up to an IV. She was telling them about all of her allergies: to latex, to sulfur, to the color pink. They were trying to get her to eat a turkey sandwich. Her best friend was there, waiting with her, and then taking her home.
They were trying to get her to eat.
I breathed, 3000 miles away, trying to keep my hands from shaking. I wanted to know it all: what happened, did she remember anything. And most of all, I wanted to know what kind of food she had in her house. Because I was certain that sustenance would not only keep her healthy, but would keep her safe.
I’m not hungry, she said. I don’t have to eat if I’m not hungry.
You have to eat, I told her. It’s probably why you fell. Because you don’t eat.
It is not why I fell, she said.
I’ll send you food, I told her.
I don’t want your food. Your grandmother ate like a horse, and she still fell. What was HER excuse?
Before we’d left for California, I’d stayed overnight at her apartment and cased her refrigerator, as I always do when I’m there: there was half a sweet potato loosely draped with non-cling plastic wrap, half of a rotisserie chicken with telltale midnight fork scrapings shredding the remaining breast, one half of a banana sheathed in what was now black skin flecked with a hint of its former yellow, a few wedges of Laughing Cow low fat cheese. And a box of Mallomars, torn open in what I recognized from my childhood as one of her 3 am fits of craving-related fury.
Two days after I returned from California, I checked her fridge again: the banana was still there, along with a lone wedge of Laughing Cow, a loaf of her diet white bread — each slice as thin as the host — and a tub of margarine.
My mother lives alone in Manhattan; she doesn’t cook — she refuses to, on principal; the idea of cooking for herself is too depressing, she tells me — but living where she does, she really doesn’t have to. She orders in food a few nights a week, and has leftovers the rest of the time. When I come home from work and call her before I take my coat off, the first question I ask is What did you eat for dinner.
Sometimes she tells me. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she gets furious that I’m keeping tabs on her. Sometimes she embellishes just a tiny bit. And sometimes, even though it’s nearing 9 o’clock at night, she tells me I haven’t even thought about dinner. And deep down, I know she won’t, for the rest of the night. Because, for her, food is an afterthought; for me, it’s about sustenance, and care.
Eating alone, she says, reminds her that she is alone.
When she does eat — if we take her out for dinner, or she goes to the actor’s association luncheons she attends every once in a while — she suddenly has energy.
I feel so much stronger, she says.
That’s because you ate, I tell her.
I don’t think that has anything to do with it, she says, rolling her eyes.
Last Saturday night, round about the time I was pouring myself a small bourbon, and thinking about putting the lemongrass, ginger, and chile-rubbed pork shoulder I’d marinated the night before into the oven, the phone rang. My mother had fallen again — this time in the street, this time while she was out with friends — and cut her brow bone and her cheek. She was at the emergency room, where she told them about her allergy to latex, and to sulfur, and to the color pink. She asked if we would drive in and take her home, and stay with her. We did.
What happened, Ma, I said, finding her in a wheelchair in the waiting area of the emergency room. There were six navy blue stitches over her eye and a nasty bruise on her cheekbone.
I fell again, she said. Like Grandma.
We took her home and sat up talking late into the night, she, in my grandmother’s favorite Louis XIV chair in the living room. The next morning, we shopped for her and filled her refrigerator with the things she purports to love: herby roast chicken, low fat cheese, challah with raisins, sweet Irish butter in a tub, good organic peanut butter, whole roasted Brussels sprouts, emerald green broccoli dotted with flecks of nutty, golden garlic.
She was furious. She ranted and raved and cried with thanks. That night, she told me she had chicken and Brussels sprouts for dinner. I breathed a sigh of relief. She would be safer, healthier, and stronger if she ate. She would be less apt to fall.
I stopped in to see her the next morning on my way to work; while she was laying down, I snuck into the kitchen to peek into the fridge. There was one Brussels sprout missing from the container; a chicken wing had been carelessly twisted off its carcass. There was no plate in the dishwasher or the sink. She had “eaten dinner” standing up. Forkless. Grazing.
We fought. She yelled.
Like your grandmother-the-faller, she said, this is who I am. I will not eat alone. But I would love it if you’d join me for lunch.
Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon, Thyme, and Olives
Years ago, on one of her overnight visits to our house, my mother parked herself at our dining room table and watched me cook a few feet away.
Don’t make anything for me, she said, I’m not hungry.
This sort of thing happens a lot; my mother’s timing for letting me know she doesn’t plan on eating my food is impeccable and usually designed for maximum psychological impact. Is it because I’m cooking it, or is it because she’s really not hungry? And if she’s really not hungry, could it be because she gnawed on half a Chunky candybar (the other half of which she left hidden between the pages of an old copy of Vogue that was sitting on our kitchen island, like maybe we wouldn’t find it?) an hour before I started cooking? These are questions I will likely never know the answer to.
Still, there are some things she cannot — and will not — resist, like my chicken with lemon, thyme, and olives, which I first made for her that night, above, as sort of a Chunky chaser. This very traditional one-pan braise is earthy and pungent, fresh-tasting and briny, and that night, I witnessed my mother-the-food-hater go so far as to use her finger to wipe up the remaining sauce after she cleaned her plate.
I’ll send you home with leftovers, I said.
Don’t bother, she replied. Unless you’re coming with them.
Serves 4 with leftovers (except for my mother)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 3-1/2 pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
8 sprigs fresh thyme, divided
3 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 lemons, cut into eighths (wedges)
3/4 cup pitted green olives
1/2 cup pitted oil-cured black olives
kosher salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Heat the oil in a large, oven-proof saute pan with a lid (I use my Le Creuset 12″ Bistro pan), over medium heat until just rippling. Add the chicken pieces, skin-side down, taking care not to crowd the pan (do this in batches if necessary). Brown the skin well, remove to a platter, and wipe out all but approximately 1-1/2 tablespoons of oil from the pan.
Add the minced garlic and saute until soft, about 3 minutes. Lay 4 sprigs of thyme over the garlic, and return the chicken pieces to the pan, skin-side up, arranging them on top of the thyme. Add the smashed garlic, scattering the cloves around the chicken, and lightly season with pepper.
Pour in the stock, wine, and lemon juice, and bring to a low boil. Reduce to a simmer, add the lemon wedges, and scatter the remaining thyme sprigs over the chicken. Add the olives to the pan, cover, and place in the oven for 45 minutes, basting frequently with the pan sauce.
Remove the cover, increase heat to 450 degrees F, and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the chicken is a deep golden and the sauce has thickened. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving in shallow soup bowls, with a slice of crusty garlic toast.