Tender age

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In my mother’s arms.

Once when I was six years old, I thought I would never see my mother again. It was a feeling that only lasted for about 30 minutes, but even after all these years later, it’s still a memory that can make my throat close.

I can remember it as clearly as other historically upsetting events in my life – the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, and Donald Trump’s election. Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic, but it is a memory that is firmly etched in my grownup brain.

It was my first day of first grade in Petersburg, VA and it was my maiden voyage on a school bus. My elementary school was near Fort Lee – a large Army base – and because of an influx of students that year, we had to go to school in shifts. I was assigned the morning shift which made for a dark pickup at 7:00 AM and dismissal before lunch.

old bus

It looks a lot bigger when you’re only 42 inches tall.

I recall being nervous about riding the bus for the first time, but my mom stood with me in the dark and told me she would have my favorite lunch – tomato soup and grilled cheese – waiting for me when the bus dropped me back off after school. To this day, a grilled cheese can still serve as an incentive for me.

So, I climbed up those big steps on to the bus clutching my Beany and Cecil book bag and was greeted by the driver – a burly man who already seemed a little grouchy for so early in the day. I quickly found an open aisle seat and steeled myself for the ride. I nervously scanned the other rows and realized that I was one of the youngest kids on the bus. A lot of them seemed to already know each other, but I kept my game face on. I was, as my mother had reminded me – a big girl now.

bennyandcecil

Beany and Cecil were as big as SpongeBob Squarepants in their day. Really.

The school day was unremarkable. My teacher, Mrs. Westinghouse, was at least 78 years old – or so she appeared to me. She was rather portly and pretty no-nonsense which is perhaps the most strategic approach for facing a room of 30 six-year-olds. We read and had a milk break. I never enjoyed the milk break – the milk always seemed to be curiously warm. A few months later, I would throw-up during milk break, forever unendearing me to Mrs. Westinghouse.

milk

It was never meant to be served at room temperature!

The morning passed quickly and it was time to board the bus for the trip home. Once we got on the road, burly bus driver told us he was learning the route for the new school year and that we should just shout out in advance of our house so he would know when to stop.

I could feel my tiny palms start to sweat. Do you remember how loud your school bus was? The thought of yelling over that thunderous noise in front of a bunch of older kids terrified me. I decided I would just see how other kids did it and copy them – only they were almost all older kids so the bus driver already knew where they lived.

I practiced silently in my seat and as we neared my street, my heart began to race. Then the countdown began – 30 seconds, 10 seconds, five seconds… I choked. Actually, I froze. Nothing came out of my mouth as we sailed by my house. Now before you judge my mother (that’s clearly my job) for not being at the bus stop waiting for me, you need to know that she was inside the house tending to my three-year-old brother at the time. And she was getting that grilled cheese ready, too.

My heart sank. Now what? I thought about walking up to the front of the bus and telling the bus driver he passed my house but, let’s face it – that was not going to happen. I’d like to tell you that I did some masterful six-year-old problem solving but the truth is – I just sat there quietly – knowing that not only had I ruined my academic career on my first day of first grade, but that I would never get home and see my mom.

school bus

The wheels on my first bus came off pretty quickly.

The last kid besides me got off the bus and the driver looked back at me quizzically and said, “Where do you live?” Gulp. I did not know my address. Again – no judging – it was a simpler time. My heart was pounding so hard and I wondered what would happen next. The bus driver was aggravated, and I wanted to cry, but I figured that would aggravate him more. I just wanted my mom – even more than that grilled cheese – so I swallowed those hot tears.

The bus driver sighed and told me he was taking me back to school to see if someone in the office knew where I lived. That sounded like a good plan to me, but I still felt so alone and scared. We got back to the school and I followed him into the office and he presented me to the secretary like I was a juvenile delinquent. “She doesn’t know where she lives,” he grumbled to the seemingly nice lady behind the desk. “What’s your name, dear?” she asked sweetly. I did know my name – so I had that going for me.

She pulled out a big notebook and turned a few pages and came up with my address. I was the only Addison Ore in the directory. “Confederacy Drive,” she told the bus driver.  (Yes, Petersburg was big on Civil War references.) He sighed and told me to get back on the bus. That was way before I knew about The Walk of Shame, but I’m sure I did the elementary school version. I got back on the bus and sat in the front row by the window. I was not missing my stop this time.

By now, my mother was getting worried – knowing I should have been home by now. This was long before cell phones. Little did I know that she was standing by the end of our drive with my brother in tow waiting anxiously for me to arrive. The bus driver slowed to a stop and I stood up and said, “This is MY house.” Okay, a little late, but it’s always good to stick the landing.

I came flying down those giant steps and fell into my mother’s arms. All was right with my world again. We walked down the driveway to the side door off the carport and into the kitchen where there on my little table was my lunch – steam still rising from the tomato soup.

I was home.

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Waiting for me.

All these years later, it may read as a silly story, but I was reminded of it again this week as I watched in sheer horror the images of immigrant children being separated from their parents – some for days and months – some perhaps forever. How can this be happening? I know how. We all know how. This isn’t a political post. It’s a human post. The question now is how we fix it. We must fix it.

cages

America the Beautiful. Not so great.

Over 50 some years ago, I was separated from my mother for half and hour and the memory of that fear can still quicken my pulse. I can’t imagine – I don’t want to imagine – the kind of fear those children are experiencing now. I worry, as most of us do, if they will ever get back home – which for most of them means their mother or father – not a physical place any longer.

Everybody Lost Somebody is a haunting song by Jack Antonoff of Bleachers. He wrote it about his younger sister Sarah, who died of brain cancer several years ago. The song is about death but it’s also about finding our way home.  I’ve been listening to it a lot this week and thinking that for these kids, this separation must feel like death. Click here to listen.

I think pain is waiting alone at the corner

Tryna get myself back home, yeah

Looking like everybody

Knowing everybody lost somebody

I’m standing here in the cold and

I gotta get myself back home soon

Looking like everybody

Knowing everybody lost somebody

Everybody lost somebody

Everybody lost somebody

I don’t have the answers. Most days I simply rant and rave at the cruel absurdity of what’s going on in our country courtesy of the current administration, but this is different. I don’t have kids. I never really wanted kids. I’m the person that doesn’t want to be seated anywhere near kids in a restaurant. But I have cried for these kids and I know many of you have, too. Hell, even Rachel Maddow cried.

rachel

This is us.

A grilled cheese isn’t going to fix this, but we gotta get them home soon – even if they don’t have an address.

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“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35  Photo: cnbc.com

 

 

 

 

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Memories on the menu

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I had the same lunch every day for the entirety of first grade – Campbell’s Tomato Soup and a grilled cheese. I got to come home for lunch because my school was so overcrowded we went on shifts and I got the early one and was done with my school day by 12:30.

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The best thing about first grade

My lunch seemed like a worthy reward for standing in what felt like the dark of night with my mother waiting for the bus. That lunch, particularly the grilled cheese, is still a comfort food touchstone for me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between food and memory lately. I just finished watching “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. It’s a wonderful and mouth-watering series about six renowned chefs from all over the world. Each chef talks passionately about the influence of personal memory on their cooking.

“I’m trying to take you back to when you were a child,” says Italian chef Massimo Bottura. He learned a lot about cooking by hiding under his grandmother’s kitchen table as his older brothers chased him. She taught him how to roll tortellini and today that is one of the most popular items on the menu at his three Michelin star restaurant, Osteria Francescana in Modena.

I miss a lot about my parents, not the least of which is some of those foods of my childhood that they prepared. My mother was a very good cook, far surpassing the casserole queens of her generation. She was modest about her culinary skills and always said,” If you can read, you can cook.”

I’m not sure I believe that. I think most folks can follow a recipe but it takes a lot more than that to be a cook who creates memories.

Growing up, we always got to pick the dinner for our birthday. I always picked stuffed Italian shells with my mother’s homemade tomato sauce. I have her sauce recipe and will make it from time to time. I can see her hands in my own when I open all the cans of tomato sauce and paste and mix them together.

And I think that’s where the secret lies with the best cooks – the hands. My mother had beautiful elegant hands and I loved watching the Dance of the Christmas Cookies as she would roll out the dough and cut the perfect shapes and press them on to the baking sheet.

Chef Nikii Nakayama is featured in "Chef's Table" on Netflix. It's all in the nands.

Chef Nikii Nakayama is featured in “Chef’s Table” on Netflix. It’s all in the hands.

I think of all the best cooks I know, and I’m quite fortunate to know a delicious plenty, and they all have interesting hands that move quite gracefully when they cook. And I loved watching the hands of the chefs in “Chef’s Table.” Their movements are deft and deliberate at times and then tender and almost poetic at others.

I’m telling you – it’s in the hands. I love watching my wife cut up vegetables. It’s sweet and sexy all at the same time. And she’s always smiling while she’s doing it – even when she doesn’t know I’m watching.

cheese danish

Visions of my mother’s cheese danish dance through my head every Christmas.

Holidays are rich with food memories. My mother made an extraordinary cheese danish from scratch – the recipe was two full long pages. We had it every Christmas morning and while I do have the recipe, I haven’t managed the courage to attempt it myself. Just thinking about it gives me a lump in my throat.

Oyster-Stew

This is Christmas morning to me.

My father made oyster stew on Christmas morning and I have replicated that pretty well but in all honesty, it doesn’t taste as good without him to share it. Dad had a small repertoire when it came to cooking but what he did, he did damn well. His fried flounder is the best I have ever had and Lord knows I’ve done a lot of comparison tasting.

It’s funny when I think about it now, but my father was on to the farm to table movement long before it became trendy. He grew up on a farm and deeply appreciated and respected everything about that – the animals, the vegetables and the people who “worked the soil” as he liked to say.

flounder

Dad’s flounder was lightly fried with a vague sweetness.

He had a large garden and nothing made him happier than making a cucumber and tomato salad every evening for dinner from the bounty he just brought in. He never took food for granted and he was the kindest of audiences when you cooked for him. We never left a church pot luck supper that he didn’t say, “Your mother’s dish was the best.”

I love that part of his ashes were scattered in two different tomato gardens when he died 13 years ago. And the harvest in both gardens that summer was prolific. Coincidence? I think not.

The connection between our taste buds and our hearts is a profound one, marinated in memory. Chef Ben Shewry of Attica in Melbourne, Australia, beautifully articulates this association in an episode of “Chef’s Table” when he says, “I’m trying to take people back to these times in their lives when people who loved them cooked for them in a way that was really meaningful and satisfying.”

It’s time for lunch and I suddenly have a longing for a grilled cheese.

grlled cheese