Past due

“I think mom had a shopping problem,” I say to my brother and dad. They laugh because even though I’m exaggerating a little bit, my mom did love to shop. My brother and I are in Winslow with our dad. Our mission: go through the massive amounts of holiday decorations collected by my mom through the years, and divide stuff up amongst us.

My mom had tubs and tubs of Christmas decorations and looking through them all, and sorting them, took us into the late afternoon. We are enjoying ourselves. “Judy, really?” I say, when I come across something particularly schmaltzy. Plus when’s the last time I hung with my dad and brother for a weekend, just us?

My dad observes that if we wanted to, we could decorate each room in the house with a different Christmas theme. Like, a Snowman room, say, or a Classic Santa room, or a Playful Winter Penguins room.

Later that night after going out for tacos, we gathered at the kitchen table to play some cards. I said, “Hey dad, do you have any Tequila Rose?” Because he usually does have the sweet strawberry flavored tequila. It’s something I like to drink at my parents’ house. I think I’ve only ever had it at their house. My dad said, “No, but I’ve probably got something else.” He stood on the kitchen step stool and rooted around in the high cabinet until he found a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream. “Hey, I’ve got this!” he said triumphantly. It was a jumbo bottle, and looked almost full.
“Sure, that’ll do,” I said.
We all three poured a glass while I shuffled the deck of cards.

A half hour later, my dad was examining the bottle while he waited for his turn. Our glasses sat nearly empty “Listen to this,” he said. “For optimal consumption of this product please use by date on bottle . . .” he paused dramatically.
“Well, what is it?” we said.
“November, 2008!”
We crack up. We’re four years too late for optimal consumption.”

We reassure ourselves that it’s liquor so it can’t go bad, right? And it tasted perfectly fine besides. More importantly it’s possible that my mom bought this bottle of Irish Cream, and since she’s been gone since 2008, that seems remarkable in itself.

Dark and stormy

before the geyser

A couple of weeks ago Emerson had two baby teeth pulled to make room in her mouth. Later that night we were expecting Liam’s twin, Seth, and his boyfriend, Matt, from LA. The next day their older brother, Hil, and Tara, and the kids were flying in from Brooklyn.

Emerson was brave and calm at the dentist. Keeping her sights set on the weekend fun ahead. The teeth came right out. She made the drive home with gauze in her mouth, and the bleeding was minimal. She had a bowl of lime Jello. So far, so good. A few hours later, just as Seth and Matt arrived, her mouth started bleeding a little so we put more gauze in and headed for a Vietnamese place for dinner.

But once we got to the restaurant, her mouth started bleeding A LOT worse. She had her hand over her mouth. When she pulled it away it was covered in blood. I changed the gauze but it quickly turned bright red again. I took her home while the guys ate. On the way there she said, “Am I going to be ok?” “Of course,” I said (though the amount of blood was beginning to freak me out). I told her to lay on the couch with her head back and bite down on more gauze. We got one side to stop bleeding, but the other side JUST. WOULDN’T. QUIT. This went on for two hours. Bloody gauze pack after bloody gauze pack. We had her bite down on a damp black tea bag. Liam called the dentist. Apply pressure with the gauze for 15 minutes non-stop she instructed. So we did, and thought we’d finally gotten it to stop. But Emerson got up to go to the bathroom and it started bleeding again.

It was getting late now, and my sweet smart daughter said through her bloody mouth, “This isn’t normal” and I had to agree with her. This was a Iot of blood for one little tooth hole. After calling the dentist again, it was decided we would meet back at her office. It was 10:45. She was in sweats and a t-shirt, and really nice to my kid, as she put some coagulate putty in her mouth. Then waited to assess the bloody baby-tooth hole. Making small talk she said this was the first time in 25 years she’d had to do this. What?! “You’re kidding me,” I said. She wasn’t. What a distinction. I guess she won’t forget us. But, believe me, I was glad we went.

Luckily, kids bounce back because it was a Sherman Bonanza weekend, and by the next afternoon Emerson was splashing in the pool. We had a good time: all three brothers together, late summer cousin time. We were at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in the pool and in a cabana, all of us taking turns going down a waterslide over and over. Mela and Emerson, born one week apart, got along like two peas in a pod. My sister-in-law Tara and I went thrift store shopping and scored some good dresses and reconnected. My nephew Marcello was bright, and feisty, and wearing seersucker pants with a gunslinger belt buckle.

Even though we hadn’t travelled anywhere this summer, it felt like a vacation for us. A much needed break in the usual action. We drank “Dark and Stormys” poolside to celebrate the good and well conclusion to last night’s bloody mouth fest. Resolved and toughened up. The tooth socket holding firm. Family bonds holding firm. Blood thicker than water, or rum, or something like that. The mood wasn’t dark and stormy at all. In fact, the bloody tooth, though not exactly life threatening got my attention. It was a reminder how happy I am to have these days together in the sun.

Transactive memory

“Oh that Aunt Jan, she shouldn’t be getting me anything,” I say while tearing the wrapping off of a white shirt box on Christmas morning. I lift the lid and find a worn Ziploc baggie. “What’s this?” Inside is a writing tablet with my grandma’s name stamped on it twice and two brittle handmade cookbooks.

When I unseal the top of the Ziploc bag, it smells! It’s chemically sweet like dryer sheets and Aqua Net.  It’s the smell of visiting my grandma at the Beauty Shop behind her house; of shop towels in the laundry; of pretending to “sit under the dryer” while watching her roll hair into rows of rollers. I want to hoard this smell.

I delicately thumb through one of the cookbooks, “Relief Society Recipe Book”. There is a handwritten page tucked inside for Coconut Marshmallow Layer Cake. I smell you and I hoard you.

The second of the recipe books is two-hole punched; red plastic rings holding the loose typed double-sided pages.  The recipes are from Winslow women, I recognize some of these names. I like the name Goldie Cooke, I think she was a friend of grandma’s. It has no cover and no date, could it be the 50’s, 60’s – not sure who collected these and put them together. Some women’s club I imagine, but which one?

Hot Milk Sponge Cake

Food For The Gods


Grandma’s contribution: Spoon Bread Tamale Pie, also South of the Border Casserole, and a Cranberry Salad with celery and marshmallows.  I’ve eaten you.

Many of the women’s recipes use the word “scant”. Scant cup sugar, scant cup oil.  Why scant?

Which brings me to this thought: I’m beginning a New Year thinking about Transactive memory – a system of explaining how we rely on our family, friends, and community to store information for us.  Each person doesn’t need to remember everything the group needs to know, it’s the capacity to know who knows what. How people in close relationships “coordinate” memory and tasks. These recipe books unlock transactive memories about food and community, and a shared culinary heritage.

Like a family story that is laughter plus smells plus food. The whole is greater than the sum.  I think this might mean that my iPhone is part of my transactive memory? And this blog?

I’m going to try to remember that what I know includes what those around me know. I’m thinking about this while smelling old crumbly recipe books, trying to conjure my grandma’s expertise and areas of specialization, part of the memory of my childhood, and wondering what there is to learn from making that Coconut Marshmallow Layer Cake?  And smelling Aqua net?


The Uh-uhs

For our time in Philly, we are staying in a place we have dubbed “the Circle House”.  It was found and rented by Liam’s twin brother, Seth, and is right off of Rittenhouse Square. It is modernist and geometric and an awesome place to spend a week. It has giant round windows, and a spiral staircase, and a minimal feel but within the structure of a traditional Philadelphia townhome.

Seth is with us, and we’ve spent time with Liam and Seth’s parents, and their older brother Hil, my sister-in-law Tara and my niece and nephew who drove down from Brooklyn.

Like a dogged anthropologist I have worked to try to understand the dynamics and complicated inner-workings of this tribe, yet still sometimes struggle with it after many years among them.

When Liam and Seth were little — pre-verbal really — they had a whole society they began creating out of their wooden toys. These people were called, “The Uh-uhs”.  The name came from hearing, “Uh-uh-uh, don’t touch that.”

The Uh-uhs, were little round connector pieces from tinker toys, Lincoln Log parts, square blocks, and a collection of various furniture knobs brought home from a factory by their father, Stephen. They had set personalities that both Seth and Liam had a clear understanding of.  It was a whole imaginary universe complete with many sub-sets.

For instance there was “Grammy” (which could be singular or the plural, “Grammies”).  A “Grammy” was not a grandmother. Grammy was a flat, large and wagon wheel shaped wood piece based loosely on their brother Hil.  There were also “Pocodots” which represented Seth and Liam.  Pocodots were mischievous and clever. There were “Twerps”; they were even tinier. Twerps were twins.  They probably came from a wooden game set. Two big round blocks represented the parents – Dwissy, the dad, and Delosi, the mom.  Delosi was really the boss and nice, but she also handed out the punishments. Dwissy bumbled around quizzically. The Twerps and/or the Pocodots were always gaming the system pranking Grammy.  You still with me?

The Uh-uhs were rooted in the twins childhood play and are still widely referenced to explain things in adulthood. For instance the Circle House where we are staying on vacation is clearly the work of Pocodots.

This twin-developed play evolved over time and included certain truths such as:  the larger the furniture knob, the stronger the Uh-uh (but also the more dim-witted). One unique furniture knob looked like a blue turban so they put him on top of one of the Pocodots and he became “Ingenious Pocodot”. The smallest, squeaky-voiced, Uh-uh was a little yellow knob that came off of Seth’s dresser and she was called “Little Tiny Ancestor” – the wisest one and also the leader.

There were Bunchys (sweet and placid Uh-uhs, and also a term of endearment), and Wee-wee Uh-uh’s (extremely timid in nature).

Deciphering the Uh-uhs is not unlike deciphering the Sherman clan. Except that the Uh-uhs are a simplification of personality traits and in many ways each member of the Sherman family is capable of magnification of behavior and qualities.  During our trip to Philadelphia among the extended family, there were moments of feeling like both a Wee-wee Uh-uh and an Ingenious Pocodot.  This is an incredibly contradictory, hard crowd of people to get all together in one place. To get them to all be civil to one another is trickier still.  There were moments of emotional side-stepping, and a couple of moments of acquiescence in the face of inflexibility (No, no, no let us rent a car) and I don’t want to name names but someone threw a hissy fit about finding a tick on their person which, upon close inspection, turned out to be a pimple.  And, Seth swears at one point I let out a snappy little, “Uh” (almost like a zap) to signal to Liam he was about to go too far at the dinner table. All in all, though, I think we would agree it was a terrific success. Most importantly, our own Little Tiny Ancestor got to spend time with her grandparents, aunt, uncles, and cousins and be among this side of her family. Plus the soft pretzels really can’t be beat.

Still unpacking, but in the meantime…

Hinamatsuri, Girls’ Day, was March 3rd.  Platforms are covered with red carpet and ornamental dolls are displayed. I was going to say that we didn’t celebrate it in any grand way, but then I caught myself as I thought about the week.

Last Sunday Em and I met up with Aunt Jan for a day of shopping. Aunt Jan wanted to buy Emerson a bedspread for her new bedroom. She picked one out with blue and lilac flowers. Aunt Jan also got her a bird-shaped pillow, beaded curtains and two spring outfits. It was a day to celebrate the girl for sure.

Also, this week the first-graders at Em’s school are supposed to dress like their favorite book character.  Em’s current favorite books are “Year of the Dog” and “Year of the Rat” by Grace Lin. Yesterday I stole away to the Chinese Cultural Center to find her a red silky Chinese outfit. When she got home from ballet she said, “ Where is it?” and stripped down in the living room to try it on and pat her silky legs.

Once upon a time in Ancient Japan, people believed the dolls had the power to contain bad spirits. I don’t know about that, but I know that the little girl in my life has the ability to chase the bad feelings away from me.

California Adventure

We just got back from a five-day trip to Disneyland. It was the biggest, baddest, Disney trip we could muster with a hotel room right smack in the park at the Grand Californian Hotel. Pirate mouse ears were purchased, as well as a keepsake popcorn container in the shape of Mickey Mouse. The whole park was aglow with Halloween decorations, Mickey-eared pumpkins, and friendly ghosts.

Emerson couldn’t get enough. She kept an ever-changing tally of her favorite rides. Matterhorn bobsleds getting replaced by Big Thunder Mountain in the final analysis as her favorite. She wants to know mine – the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean. And her dad’s – Soaring Over California.

Interestingly one of my favorite things about the whole trip was also one of the most lo-fi. It was discovering Animation Academy, located in the California Adventure Park. We found seats in a small auditorium where everyone is provided with a drawing board, paper and a pencil. A Disney animator demonstrates step by step how to draw a classic character. We had to sort of twist Emerson’s arm to go in at first, but we had such a good time that as soon as we were finished we immediately circled back in line to do it again. We went back the next morning too. Here are our drawings of Jack Skellington.

Take it easy

As I was driving to work my Aunt Jan called to say she had just scored two free tickets to see the Eagles and did I want to go? Well . . . shit. What could I do? I would pretty much follow Aunt Jan to the ends of the Earth if she needed me to. I’m feeling worn-out lately but I don’t want to be the girl who turns down free concert tickets, even if it is the Eagles. Or maybe, especially, because it is the Eagles.

I mean it’s no secret that my hometown is Winslow, AZ — as in “Standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ”.

“Oh god. The Eagles,” says my friend Amy, “you must really never want to hear them again after growing up in a town with at least one store that plays that song on a continuous loop”.

That song would be “Take It Easy”.

Standin’ on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona.
Such a fine sight to see.
It’s a girl my lord, in a flatbed Ford,
slowing down to take a look at me

For a while, this was years ago, I was contemplating getting a horseshoe tattoo with the word Winslow written in fancy script inside the bend. I wanted the ink-work to look like tooled leather. Like a western belt that has a cowboy’s name squarely stated on his backside, like “Chad” or “Justin” or “Clayton”. I felt that strongly about my hometown’s hooks in me.

Winslow doesn’t have a lot to crow about, but we try to make the most of it. Which is why the townspeople have taken that one lyrical mention and carved out a whole cottage industry.

In downtown Winslow a “Standin’ (there is no g) on the Corner Park” was built in the early 90’s. Complete with a painted mural of a girl in a flatbed ford and a bronze statue of a man with a guitar standing on the corner.

And every September the town celebrates a Standin’ on the Corner Festival. It’s a two-day music festival culminating on Saturday night with the performance of an Eagles cover band, Hotel California.

There are food vendors, beer, music and lots and lots of dust. The town is packed.

The summer my mom passed away she had arranged for the extended family to take a cruise together in Alaska. One of the more memorable stories of the whole trip involves my Uncle Tom, his sister (my Aunt Jan), and Liam getting drunk together and troubling some poor piano player in the bar to play “Take it Easy”. When the piano player did play the song, Tom announced in a loud voice to the entire ship’s casino, “That’s us. We’re from Winslow!” Which has become a sort of mantra for us all.

Anyway, all of this should explain why this concert with Aunt Jan is not to be missed. Turns out, we have good seats and as the show gets under way Aunt Jan reaches over to give me a hug and I think, “This is the closest I will get to hugging my mom again”. Aunt Jan’s body feels familiar, similar.

When the band starts playing “Hotel California” I am transported. I am 6, maybe 7 years old, and I am cruising through the bright desert with my mother on our way to New Mexico. She is wearing Famolare sandals and big sunglasses, which she considered very chic. I have on knee-high socks with sandals. She is singing this song and we are cruising through the desert and it is just the two of us.

My Aunt Jan is a natural cheerleader. She whoops and cheers at T-ball games or ballet recitals louder than anyone. When any one of us graduates high school or scores a goal it is Aunt Jan who we will hear. She is the kind of woman who sticks four-fingers in her mouth when she whistles.

That night there were plenty of whistles from my seat-mate. The Eagles sang for three and a half hours and we had to wait until the encore to get our moment. As the band re-took the stage and began to sing “Take it Easy” it was our moment to say, “That’s us. We’re from Winslow”.

BBQ Sauce and Grape Weenies

We spent New Year’s Eve with my Uncle Tom, his family, my dad and my Aunt Jan.  Tom and I have always been close; we’re only seven years apart. He was the youngest of my Grandma’s children and I was the oldest grandchild,  so at times growing up, he and I were more like brother and sister.

This New Years Eve, Tom had a crock-pot set up in one corner of his kitchen.  Inside was a concoction of miniature sausage weenies marinating in a mélange of four bottled barbecue sauces (the dregs retrieved from a recent fridge cleaning exercise) and – get this – grape jelly. “Well, my god, that is disgusting!” I told him.  He grinned and giggled because – I think – he knows I’m right.

Now just so you don’t misunderstand me – Tom has a very good job working for a Major League Baseball team.  It is not a lack of options that has led him to this very disgusting sounding appetizer.

Tom and I suffered through all the same meals and culinary trends served to us by his mother and mine. We come from a family that proudly re-used empty margarine tubs as serving dishes, where my favorite dinner request was Ritz cracker and sour cream chicken.  It’s exactly what it sounds like. Chicken breasts dredged in sour cream and rolled in crushed Ritz crackers and baked in butter.   At Grandma Thelma’s  house and my mothers’ we ate many a salad where mayonnaise and jello were featured ingredients.

I’ve watched Tom stuff 3 and 4 whole fish sticks in his mouth at a time to try and get me to laugh. He used to tease me mercilessly about my picky eating habits famously declaring, “It takes you ten bites to eat an M&M!” This was lovingly shorted to just, 10 bites to an M&M, and repeated ad nauseum — meanwhile he would mime and mimic my careful examination of every bite of food for offending bits of fat or onions or green stuff or whatever.

Being older, he’s often had the upper hand.  Whenever I whoop him at something I take extra glee in it, whether it is a card game or Monopoly, because he’s so often come out the victor.

Food is meant to bring us together.  There is the community of the table and the culinary heritage we share with our family. And, sometimes food is meant to be daring or challenging.  This dish challenged me in a whole different way – it was dare food. As in, I dare you to eat it.

Anyway, on New Years we didn’t do much – made popcorn, played a few rounds of gin rummy, drank some wine, laughed at the kids and their friends who drifted in and out of the kitchen.  Mostly we just talked.

I am one year into doing the thing I said I would never do which is move to Phoenix, AZ. The decision to be here was not an easy one. Frankly I wasn’t sure what we would find here, but I knew this is where my family was.

But something about the fact that Tom made those damn cocktail weenies in BBQ sauce and grape jelly really touched me.  Like, it means that the Tom I knew when I was 8 years old is not lost to me.  Like, I know he made them for us because we are family, which means we can let it all hang-out.  And eat grape weenies if we want to.