All Fall Down

February 9, 2014 · 28 comments


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.”

Vintage television isolated on white

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.

Banana Peel

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.

I 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.
















{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rachel February 9, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Your mother jumps off the page. Or falls!…either way…lovely writing. Enjoyed every word.

2 Carol T February 9, 2014 at 9:48 pm

This brought back memories of my own mother, who would eat one radish, or the wingtip of a quail,and claim she was “so full, she couldn’t eat another mouthful”. A faller, no. A martyr, definitely. She seemed proud that I’d learned to be a good cook, but wouldn’t grant me the compliment of eating what I cooked.

Love the writing, loved the memory. What comes through most of all is a family of seriously strong willed women.

3 Doris D'Adamo February 9, 2014 at 10:33 pm

My 28 year old daughter is a Community Organizer who lives in Brooklyn, and I live and worry for her in Northern California, and when Kate makes her weekly obligatory call to let me know she is still alive and breathing, I always ask her how and what she’s eating. By knowing my loved ones are eating ‘real food at appropriate mealtimes’, I know they are going to be o.k…… On my supper menu this week will be Pan-Braised Chicken with Lemon, Thyme and Olives… and I will make plenty to feed my husband, and my sister, who is too busy running a pilates studio to eat meals at mealtimes….

4 Elissa February 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Hi Doris- Thank you so much for writing. Hope you love the braised chicken as much as we do—-E

5 Elissa February 9, 2014 at 11:27 pm

Thanks Carol- So appreciate your words. E

6 Elissa February 9, 2014 at 11:28 pm

Thanks Rachel!

7 Kathleen February 10, 2014 at 12:18 am

This made me cry a little bit. The loneliness is haunting. You captured your fear and her insecurities so beautifully. My mom is headed this way with food, but for different reasons. She currently only cooks for my dad. If he’s away, she just nibbles like your mom. When she’s visiting me she says, “Oh, you know me. Don’t make that for me. I’m fine. I ate an apple slice four hours ago.” She weighs less than she ever has and is quickly becoming one of those old ladies whose skin you can pinch and then watch it stay upright, like a little mountain. (My grandma was the opposite. Ate more and more as she got older. If there is to be an extreme as we age, I imagine I’ll take after her.)

PS- I enjoyed reading your book this fall on a rare weekend away with my husband (probably as refreshing as your getaway in December with Susan). “You” went on a ferry ride across Puget Sound and sat with me next to the water for hours! It was lovely. Thank you. Now following along here…

8 Hannah February 10, 2014 at 2:25 am

I love this one Elissa – the recipe and also the way your mom comes so much to life through your words. Isn’t it amazing, the tangle that is mothers and daughters and food? Thanks for sharing this one.

9 mimijk February 10, 2014 at 6:11 am

Your talent for combining fantastic writing, deep crazy love and mouth watering recipes is nothing short of a treat for the senses. Would that your mom would eat food infused with love and health (a Chunky is good, but it ain’t all that).

10 Elissa February 10, 2014 at 6:16 am

Would that she would, Mimi. Or could. xx

11 Elissa February 10, 2014 at 6:16 am

Thank you Hannah!

12 Elissa February 10, 2014 at 6:17 am

Thanks you so much Kathleen—for your words, and for your note about the book. If I went across Puget Sound this weekend, then I was a very happy woman indeed!

13 Wendy Read February 10, 2014 at 8:14 am

Your writing is wonderful, this touched me.. I understand, food is so central to everything. I think, why is it that she is alone…is she fiercely does this happen in life. I know you can’t fix it, but hope that you don’t have any regret, not a speck for not swooping her up and having her be with you. Life is so short, it is with us and then it is not. I am an orphan, I have lost both of my parents and I have this highly sensitized view which I always try so hard to not project onto others. Forgive me.

14 Elissa February 10, 2014 at 8:41 am

Thank you Wendy—you’re not projecting. It is so difficult!

15 Kath the Cook February 10, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Ah… the aging of parents. My Mom loves her food, and my cooking, but can’t tell you an hour later what she had (don’t worry she’s well taken care of). Holidays are always a high point. The challenges are many and diverse and I wish you well with yours. I so enjoy your writing – just beautiful and profound in big and small ways. A true thing

16 Elissa February 11, 2014 at 8:05 am

Thank you so much—

17 sharon eisen February 11, 2014 at 12:44 pm

My mother is a “faller” of renown. She has fallen everywhere we have gone. On a cruise leaving the bingo game, at the airport rushing to get to the gate, on a Boston sidewalk while visiting her granddaugher. Every time I turn around, I see my mother on the ground. In her case, it isn’t because she doesn’t eat. She is also a “very good eater” and never passes up pickled herring. Thanks Elissa, for again, eliciting memories that make me smile, and yes, cry.

18 Sharon February 11, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Best thing I’ve read in weeks. Thank you.

19 Elissa February 11, 2014 at 7:07 pm

Thank you for reading Sharon-

20 Elissa February 11, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Sharon, mine should only eat pickled herring. X

21 Nina February 11, 2014 at 11:18 pm

Loved the story and recipe!
Try to discourage Mom from wearing those high heels with the super-pointy toes. They make feet more wobbly.

22 Elissa February 12, 2014 at 8:40 am

Thanks Nina. But my mother hasn’t worn high heels (or super pointy toes) probably in 25 years…..x

23 Margot Van Schaick February 14, 2014 at 12:13 am

Ah, Elissa, what beautiful writing, coming from the inner-most heart. One of my great sorrows, for a huge part of my life, was my inability to save my mother from her determined beliefs, for to have any chance of succeeding, I’d have had to give up on saving myself. She lived to be 87. You speak so eloquently of true love, with its high joys as well as wrenching sadness. Sometimes, allwe can do is wish.

24 vanillasugarblog February 18, 2014 at 7:20 pm

not a month goes by where I look forward to saving (as hard as it may be for me) a couple of your blog posts JUST so I can take that one hour I have in the evenly to just savor them.
you are such a gifted writer…have to share this one with friends (hope you don’t mind when I do that 🙂

25 Elissa February 18, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Thank you so much VanillaKitchen—I’m so glad you’re reading.

26 Rachel February 26, 2014 at 10:04 am

I am back for the third time to read this (the first time was interrupted by my son, both inappropriately and appropriately falling off a chair.) My grandma Roddy used to tumble all the time, which meant my dad would have to go over (only a mile away) usually during dinner and he would be cross and we would all be in bed by the time he got home. The year my grandma died my dad tumbled at paddington station and broke his arm. Anyway I am trying to say this resonated deeply with me. I have been reading for a while now and just wanted to say thank you.

27 Elissa February 26, 2014 at 10:14 am

Thank you so much for writing, Rachel. It’s a slippery slope, as it were.

28 Morgan March 9, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Such beautiful writing. Thank you for the inspiration on this Daylight Savings Time Sunday.

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