“Famous Glastonbury Connecticut Peaches,” announces the hand-lettered, laminated sign at my favorite farmstand, Walker Farm, in Dummerston, Vermont. Glastonbury’s about an hour and a half south of Dummerston. Which is about as far north as good peaches can be grown.
At Walker Farm, every display table of fruits and vegetables overflows. Each is, like the peaches above, interspersed with casual bouquets of seasonal unfancy flowers — snapdragons, black-eyed susans, glads. And everything is curated. Not just “local” but “Old Athens Farm” or “Scott Farm” or, of course, “Walker Farm.” Not just “heirloom apples” but “Pearmain Abbey” or “Sheep’s Nose” or “Northern Spy” or “Cox’s Orange Pippin.” Not just “organic” or “conventional” (as at Whole Foods) but “organic”, “non-organic” or “low-spray.”
To me, a cook and gardener and someone who writes about and thinks about food, everywhere I look at Walker Farm I see invitations. These fragrant tableaus are infinitely more life than still-life… for life by definition is not still. These fruits, these vegetables, are alive, breathing. This is their moment. They must, in most cases, be eaten and soon, or they will rot.
Each basket of summer plums (first the purples, especially the small, sweet Methlens, then the yellow-amber Golden Transparents)… each tray of vivid peppers, shiny as brand new Italian racing cars, each zeppelin-like striped squash: all saying, see me, observe my shape, my color. Smell me. Look at me. Would it not be a fine thing to eat me? To allow me to become part of you? In the way that you will eventually become part of the same humus from which I grew?
At Walker Farm, the cash registers are small islands in lakes of green, surrounded by bunches of herbs. Fountainlike ferny fronds of dill, slightly done-in by being harvested, semi-reclined, like Victorian ladies draped on fainting couches; proud upright full-of-itself basil, frilled party-dress parsley, laid-back coriander — relaxing, but not as much so as the dill, and mint, also upright and sprightly and excited to be alive.
Let’s see — cucumber-dill soup, or cucumber-mint? With yogurt, green grapes, scallion…. And, oh look, the ruby crescent potatoes, the Russian banana potatoes… Chilled cucumber soup (mint and dill?) and a bowl of potato salad — how lovely a dinner would that be, on a hot summer night, on the screen porch?
First-class strawberries don’t travel
All good food is rooted in “seasonal, regional, local.” This was true long before it became politically correct and a point of pride (and marketing) at restaurants and markets all over the U.S. I will not insult you by explaining why a strawberry, flown in from California to Vermont, is utterly unlike a picked-that-morning Walker Farm strawberry; the one large and spongy, with a hollow in its middle, faintly strawberry-flavored pulp; the other small, dense, bumpy, bright red, spitting juice, ecstatic in its strawberriness. You know why. (Though, just for the hell of it, think about how you felt the last time you got off the plane at the end of a long flight).
Your receipt at Walker Farm is not as detailed as the display, but it, too, notes on each item of produce listed, “ours” or “theirs.” A Glastonbury peach is “theirs.” A Walker-grown organic Purple Cherokee tomato is “ours.”
After the first peach, there is no other
Though few may take the time to listen to or tell it, all good food is also rooted in story. Sometimes the story is, in one way or another, “ours” and “theirs” (as when a Southerner says, “Oh, we don’t put sugar in our cornbread,” a statement that is a great signifier, though a Northerner may not recognize it as such; a Northerner may think all that is being discussed is recipe, not regional identity, pride, superiority).
But, because food is seasonal, the story is also often time-connected, and its web of associations spins out from time and seasonality. Summer; watermelon; picnic. Uncle Joe, who salted his watermelon.
I could tell you a story about a peach
About being a very little girl, biting into that peach, which, it had been suggested, I eat over the sink. It was so juicy, and, I was, like all young eaters, inclined towards a stickiness which tended to spread, after contact with something juicy.
This sink was in the Poughkeepsie, New York kitchen of my mother’s best friend, Dorothy Fields, who set a stool in front of it for me to stand on. The walls of much of the house were covered in 50’s style grooved wooden cedar paneling. Dorothy, and my mother, were both young. I remember smelling, that day, a rank and distasteful odor at Dorothy’s; she had changed the diaper of her infant, Christopher. This process seemed to me disgusting, embarrassing. A somewhat fastidious child, I went outside. Later, when I came back in, it did not smell as strongly.
My mother and Dorothy, talking adult talk, sitting on the couch. Christopher, asleep in his bassinet. That was when Dorothy offered me the peach (“Ellen? Would you like a peach?”), perhaps to buy the two of them a little more uninterrupted time. “They’re pretty juicy,” she added. “You’d better eat it over the sink.”
That peach flesh was dense, a bright yellow-orange blushed in parts with a fine veining of pink-red. It was perfectly ripe, tender but with the gentlest resistance, which gave way as my strong young hungry voracious teeth sank into its tissue. That tissue exploded into flavor, a taste even more vivid than its color, almost too intense. With each bite, my mouth was flooded; the fragrance of ripe peach opened up and out through my nose into my brain as its copious pink juice poured down my chin and into the sink.
The grown-up conversation, the sleeping baby, vanished. The universe became that peach.
After I ate it, I turned on the tap. Rinsed my hands, rinsed my face. Dried them with a dish cloth. Came back to the world.
Now, again, I noticed how hot the day was.
And, now, as an adult, knowing when peaches are in season, I know it must have been July.
What comes again; what does not
It is July again, as I write this, the tail end of the month. My mother’s best friend, who eventually moved with her family from Poughkeepsie to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, to a home across the street from the one in which my mother and her family lived, is long dead, of bile duct cancer. My mother’s four best friends all died of cancer; I will say their lovely names here, now all but forgotten except to a very few people, so that just for a moment, in the memory of a peach, they may return to life:
But though they are gone, those four ladies who laughed, and drank vodka and tonics, and put Band-Aids on the knees of their own and each other’s children and who did not get to (or have to) face extreme old age, their fifth friend lives on. My mother, 98.
She is long past biting into a peach, or biting anything; we puree her food for her. (Though I am pretty good about rolling with the changes, when we had to switch from solid food to puree, I cried). At first, they were thick purees, often made ice cream-like by the addition of frozen bananas, and we (her caregivers most often, but occasionally me) fed them to her; spoon by spoon. For awhile. Now, another change: thinner purees that she can take through a straw — peach and yogurt, sweetened with maple syrup, thinned with apple juice, among them. Sometimes a substance I abhor but she now loves, recommended by her caregivers, is added: the canned nutritional supplement, called Ensure (it was another change I had trouble with, not only for the Ensure’s artificiality but because the only place I have ever seen it is on the shelves of three different beloved elders, in the months before they died).
But! My mother still lives in the same house, on the same street, Elm Place, where she lived when she was a young working mother, with friends she adored, who came and went, including Dorothy Fields, right across the street. Though my mother’s own children, and the children of her friends, are now in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, families with young children live all around her on Elm Place. Some of those children even come to visit her. Here is one, Annaliese, who brought her stuffed baby elephant to nestle into Charlotte’s cheek (“A real one would squish her,” Annaliese explained to me earnestly.)
My mother is slowly, by infinitesimal degrees, leaving life. She is the last leaf on the generational tree that was her contemporary friends and colleagues. She will leave, when she does, not in the dreadfulness that took her friends, one by one. Not for her the storm that blew Norma away when she was still green. Not even as the other three went, when their particular leaf was starting to turn red or yellow.
No. My mother, Charlotte, is one of those brown leaves which clings to the tree, curled in on itself, stubborn in its attachment. Until, one day, it, too — she — will let go.
“Time is a tree, this life one leaf” — e e cummings
I know I cannot know yet how much I will miss her, how tectonically my life will shift, only that this will be vast. But I know, too, that whatever its size, this grief will be comprehensible. For it feels like a natural ending, one that will take place as part of a natural cycle. To feel there is this — some sense to a death— is a privilege and a blessing for those who grieve that death. As the last brown leaf, I know my mother will have reached the end of a long, long season.
This is privilege for her, too. It is one her friends, who died incomprehensibly — too young and in terrible, painful ways — did not have (nor did their families, in grieving for them). It is one my late husband, who also died too young (44), but suddenly, in an accident, also did not have. The incomprehensibility of that death will stay with me. I am sure, until I, too, let go of (or are pulled from) the tree.
I will grieve my mother when she goes. But that grief will not include the “why” which deaths that make no sense bring. Deaths that seem “unnatural” tattoo the hearts of the bereaved with whys. After thirteen years, I still find myself asking why, and despite deeply wishing that I did not, and knowing I will never receive an answer, about my husband’s being ripped from life so suddenly and violently, at a time when he was so happy in his life and our shared life was also in a phase so happy, rich, and fruitful.
When grief includes such a why, bereaved people are left with something they may not ever “get over” or “find closure” with, as well-meaning but clueless people sometimes advise. As David Richo, the wise Buddist/Jungian author of “The Five Things We Cannot Change “ (and many other books) notes, “Some feelings, for example those associated wih grief about a heavy loss, may never lead to full resolution. There is a note of inconsolability in some grief no matter how much we cry or are mirrored by those who care about us. We can say yes to the given that some of our experiences remain unresolved and unfinished.” Say yes to such a thing? How? I don’t know. I know I must, because saying no is an option not on the table where truth is served. Saying no is a lie, one that is finally even more painful than submitting, voluntarily, with eyes open, to the yes.
But the agony of why — that, at least, is a phase of grief I will not have when my mother dies. She will leave, when she does, for a perfectly good reason. She will have completed her life. She will leave because it is time for her to go. She will leave because she is done.
She will have had, in addition to a full and active professional, artistic, social, and familial life in youth, middle age, and early old age, half a dozen or so years of extreme old age that have been good in ways few people in our culture can lay claim to.
She has had tender care by dear people who see her as an individual, not a generic old person, and who have come to love her as the individual she is. She has had regular, increasingly lengthy, visits from me (and the resolution of all that was once not good between us). She has had occasional visits from her son, my brother,
who is also prepared to offer financial support when and should it become needed (as it will, if she lives much longer) so that she can continue to stay where and as she is — a generosity, on his part, should it come to that, which cannot be overstated, for it will allow this sweet status quo to continue.
A sad and terrifying addendum: the words above, which I just crossed out in early September 2013, were true has far as I knew, when I wrote them in late July. And I was so proud to write them — proud that my financially well-off brother, though he had been often dismissive of me at best and typically traveled far past that in verbal though not physical abuse towards me — was actually willing to step up and give her this. As he had promised her when she was younger. As he had informed her attorney that month, that he would.
He then changed his mind.
Which now puts her future, however long it is, in jeopardy. And, having very little by way of financial resources myself, have me state of great anxiety on her behalf. I am oversimplifying here, but not by much. And I simply do not know what to do.
So strong was and is my wish for my mother’s well-being, as is my wish to be able to love, or at least like and respect, my sole sibling, that I let my desire for a redemptive act on his part overshadow 60 years of experience with an individual whose actions (though I am not a professional) align pretty clearly with what is described here. I do not believe, and I do not want to believe, what I, and my mother (fortunately unknowingly, on her part) are now facing; yet, had I gazed with eyes open to the many years of painful history, I could have predicted just such a turn of events.
But let us leave the story as I wrote it a month and a week ago, when this latest twist was still unimagined and, by me, unimaginable.
Her days, though bed-bound, are vast with laughter, good food, music (several of us sing to her regularly, and CDs are often playing, with both music she loved when young and the acoustic world beat African brought by one of her caregivers, which she seems to like even more; she actually sways in bed to it at times, dancing as she is able). We read aloud to her, sometimes, the books she herself once wrote for children. She is even still, in some fashion, helping emerging artists and writers (this is another story, and wondrous, but not one for here). There are the visits of her neighbors, young and middle-aged. And all this is not in an institution, but in her own home (to which and from which I have come and gone, with increasing frequency, these last six years).
And, she will go accompanied by her very old cat, Tumbleweed.
Tumbleweed and tumble Charlotte, tumbling out of form and living, into the timeless life. Into what the poet Theodore Rothke called Great Nature. Which ends a life, all individual lives, those of cats and peaches and mothers. But which does not and never will end life itself.
Tumbleweed and tumble Charlotte: the two of them will go to ground, the same humus from which grow apples and potatoes, Cox’s Orange Pippins and ruby crescents.
The word ‘humility’ has as its root the word humus; we will all, eventually, go to and become part of it.
But I think there is work to do before then. As we watch our elders go to earth, we take part in vast unanswerable mysteries. If, that is, we face them with wide-open eyes, with courage. If we do, we will, perhaps, grow some humility. How can we do otherwise, if we look at this journey truthfully, without believing that we will somehow be exempt from it, and from difficulty and pain in general? Will not such humility help us when we make our own journey to humus?
I believe so, but I cannot say surely. As I age my certainties grow fewer and fewer. I know only what I see, and eat, and think, and feel, and that is always changing. Because that is the nature of sight, and ingredients, and thoughts, and feelings. I only know the present, and even that, only provisionally.
I know that now, again, the peaches are back.
And I know that though they will be gone in less than a week, not to return until next summer, they are perfection now.
Dinner with Dragonwagon: random meals from a life
Sometimes I do a "status update" on Facebook that's just what I made for dinner. My FB companeros almost always ask me about it: where to find ingredients, or a recipe. Or, they say it's making them hungry... Or, they tell me about something similar that they make, or mention when and where they had it... This box, a P.S. to each post, is a semi-formalized version of same, with links and sometimes a few cooking notes at the bottom. Plus, you'll get to drop in on the dear people I'm eating with, and sit at many tables in many places with us.
|Date:||July 19, 2013|
|Place:||Screen porch of our home, Westminster West, Vermont|
|At the table with:||
David R. Koff