Ghosts at My Table

October 21, 2015 · 18 comments

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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?

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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.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Wendy Read October 21, 2015 at 5:59 pm

Beautiful.

2 Lynn Krugman October 21, 2015 at 6:25 pm

Tears in my eyes. I had the gift of 2 grandmother cooks, and a great grandmother who made full dinner for her 4 grown sons – they came to her house from the slate quarries of Vermont to eat “lunch”.
And my paternal grandfather taught us to fish and filet, grow vegetables, draw, paint, make worm farms, pick plums and enjoy all life.

3 Elissa October 21, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Now, tears in mine too. Thanks.

4 sharon eisen October 21, 2015 at 6:54 pm

i never did get my mom’s recipe for the best apple cake ever because it was in her head, never on paper and I always thought I would have time to extract it from her and write it down. Then when i finally got around to asking her the recipe, she couldn’t remember. A missed opportunity and a sad lesson learned.

thanks for another great and thought provoking read.

5 Elissa October 21, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Do you have her plates? Cookware? Silver? Keep her at the table. x

6 Cyndy October 21, 2015 at 8:37 pm

That’s lovely, keep her at the table. I bring my beloved mother in law to the table, and to the stove, in so many treasured pans and dishes I have from her.

7 Risa October 21, 2015 at 8:40 pm

I too had a maternal grandmother named Clara. She served two little girls yukky soft boiled eggs and stood there, arms crossed over her apron, waiting for us to gag them down. Some of us do not luck out in the grandmother department, so consider yourself lucky! I have all my mom’s recipes in her tiny handwriting in the small wooden box where she filed them. Her honey cake recipe called for “a half glass of oil.” You know, she would say, that glass I use! I’m eager to read the next book. Love your writing!

8 Pascale Beale October 22, 2015 at 1:10 am

I read this and am transported to my grandmother’s kitchen in France. There are dishes I make today where one tiny mouthful whisks me back in time, sitting in a stool in her kitchen. Funny how an aroma; perhaps a whiff of roasted chicken in the air, the heady scent of mulled spices, the fresh zing of zested oranges, or the green grass smell of freshly chopped parsley will carry one back in time and conjure up a multitude of memories. Thank you for your lovely piece.

9 molly October 22, 2015 at 8:59 am

Elissa,
I have no business reading food writing, this morning. We’re upending our entire lives, in two days. And maybe, that is making me all kinds of sentimental. But. BUT. These paragraphs are as true as any I’ve ever read. Coming from a family that didn’t share stories, or history, or food, ever really, the idea that “we are the sum of people and stories that came before us” is as radical as it comes. I’m from strict every(wo)man-an-island people. And yet, it is all true, isn’t it? Whether or not we speak of it. These words, these paragraphs, are those rare specimens that will stay with me for years, decades to come. Thank you for that.
I so look forward to the next book.
xx,
Molly

10 molly October 22, 2015 at 9:09 am

p.s.
Also? See the extraordinary piece on “Spooky Action” and quantum physics in today’s New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/science/quantum-theory-experiment-said-to-prove-spooky-interactions.html?_r=0). Pretty sure it explains so much about said ghosts.

11 Pam October 22, 2015 at 9:11 am

So much of our lives as American Italians are enriched by food celebrations. With Mom and Dad now 94 living together in their family home our gatherings are not complete without it. Vince and Angelina just celebrated 72 years of marriage with their 5 children surrounding them with love and spaghetti and meatballs. Thank you for reminding me to collect and treasure all the celebratory recipes.

12 Gale October 22, 2015 at 9:20 am

My dad, who died last year, is always with me when I make applesauce from the apples on my trees. It was something he loved to do, and one of the only things he ever cooked before his retirement and my mother announced that she too was retiring. He is with me every time I cook scrambled eggs, or see Kerrygold cheddar cheese.

13 Sharon October 24, 2015 at 10:59 am

Thanks for sharing a little of your story. I was transported.
I, too, had two very special grandmothers who loved us with food. Many special memories with them in their gardens, orchards, kitchens.
My maternal granddaddy was the storyteller. He shared the gift with me.

14 Elissa October 24, 2015 at 11:16 am

Thank you–x

15 Jacqueline October 24, 2015 at 5:00 pm

Fresh Air segment on birdsong, hauntingly beautiful in itself, sent me scrambling to look up “quantum entanglement” (link above!) and now thinking of snippets of food memories shared in my family, few and far between, and usually melancholy. All these snippets, recounted family stories, tell is about our people, good and bad and everything on between. The tug at our hearts or the moistening eyes, or the comfort we take in them connect us to our people and tell us what we’re made of, even as physics strives to measure what the heart already knows. Thank you.

16 Suzy October 29, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Every year when we gather for Christmas, my daughters and I make my mother’s pierogi with potato and cheese filling. I hear her every year; a memory of love.

17 Mona November 4, 2015 at 11:42 pm

That last paragraph. Oh, my! Thank you.

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