story a week


Posted in Fiction by clachnit on February 8, 2010

My mother left me photographs, her wedding ring, some poetry—a typed collection of rhymed couplets that imagines my cousin and I were corresponding when we were both in utero—and a lot of memories. Most of those are good, but quite a few are bad.

I think the only thing I have from her that’s in her own handwriting is a recipe for pea soup. It’s on an unlined index card, and it’s written in fine-tip felt pen. My mother had beautiful Palmer-perfect handwriting with swooping capitals—the “P” of  “Pea” looks like a full sail that’s sliding gracefully towards the home port  of the “S” in Soup. It’s clear that I’ve consulted it during a cooking session; the ink is smudged from my damp hands.  I keep it in a plastic sleeve now.

The recipe itself is simple. You could make it tonight, if you wanted to. Despite what my mother said, you don’t need to soak the peas overnight:

Pea Soup

1 Pkg gr. split peas (14 oz size)

Cover with water; soak overnight

Bring to boil uncovered (foams up) skim.

Add chopped: Celery, onion, ham hock, small amt of salt, oregano and parsley.

And there you have it. Only one thing is measured. If you want to know how many ham hocks, or how much celery or onion, you would need to consult a proper cookbook. (I recommend two ham hocks. You could substitute regular ham, but it won’t be as good. Or if you’re feeling fancy, you could use prosciutto. But I don’t think it has enough heft.)

My mother’s recipe card doesn’t even say how long the soup is supposed to cook. She might have just shrugged and suggested that you cook it until it is done. Obviously.

I can tell you from personal experience that it gets pretty thick. And if you are inclined to put some of it in a Thermos that’s decorated with submarines and take it to school on a rainy Tuesday, you will find that it has sealed–and I mean hot-wax sealed—the Thermos’ screw-on top. The substitute teacher will not be able to get it open. You will not get lunch, and you’ll be horribly embarrassed in front of your entire fourth-grade class. So don’t say I didn’t warn you. Stick with something less assertive, if you’re using a Thermos. Maybe a nice watery Campbell chicken noodle soup; it certainly isn’t thick enough to seal your fate in a steamy classroom.

My mother’s other staples were the New England boiled dinner (corned beef, cabbage, potatoes); liver and onions; fried pork chops; ham accompanied by cottage cheese and chunks of canned pineapple; wilted lettuce salad. The salad is actually quite good, if not exactly healthy. You fry some bacon, chop it, and drizzle the bacon and its fat over torn iceberg lettuce. Toss with a little red-wine vinegar.

And there is one other thing my mother made really well: Boston baked beans. I don’t have her recipe for that. I’m sure I must have asked her for it, but I’ve looked, and can’t find any trace of it written down anywhere.

I’ve approximated the recipe, thanks to a Betty Crocker version that dates from the 1960s. That was a rough decade for my mother: her parents died within a couple years of each other and she went crazy. She  was institutionalized for three months.  Martin Luther King was killed just before she went in. Bobby Kennedy was killed when she was there.  I don’t remember ever talking about those events with her. I remember her telling me that whatever had she had done, it wasn’t her. She hadn’t been herself.  I knew what she meant, but the crazy woman had certainly looked like her. Sounded like her, too.

I make the Boston baked beans every Fourth of July, when my husband and our friends stack fireworks on a stepladder in the street and shoot them off all at once. The beans always take more molasses and brown sugar than Betty’s recipe calls for. I haven’t tried to measure how much more, though. I just know when they’re right. And they are incredibly good with hot dogs and beer.

I make my mother’s pea soup a couple times every winter. If you make it, I’ll warn you that ham hocks can be hard to find. Don’t even try to find them in a chichi supermarket. Better to stick to a Ralphs, and look for them next to the bacon and the XLNT tamales.

And to tell the truth, it’s not my favorite soup. There’s a cream of tomato that I prefer. It’s kind of a pain in the ass to make, but it’s delicious. And there’s French onion, with its sweetness and its textures of smooth broth and crisped bread and the scalding goo of the Gruyere.

But sometimes only the split pea will do. I don’t make it as a ritual, or to pay tribute to my mother’s memory—not consciously, anyway. I just make it. I don’t follow her recipe to the letter. I don’t soak the peas. I skip the parsley. I add thyme. But as I cook, I like to take out that card, and read it, and remember the times when my mother—who was, after all, more often in her right mind than out of it—made a soup that nourished me.

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Driving Range

Posted in Fiction by clachnit on January 14, 2010

Lying there, with her eyes closed, what she heard was what you’d expect: traffic and a sparrow chirp from time to time. She was waiting for the other sound: In a Sunday’s stillness, every now and then, with no particular rhythm, the thwack of a club hitting a ball.

After a while, she opened her eyes and stared up at the pink-champagne fabric that lined the car’s interior. The pattern was something floral, which would have clashed with the tan and brown hound’s-tooth upholstery if it had been more pronounced.


She sat up and looked out through the windshield. The golfers were lined up along the edge of the grass, each one with a club and a bucket of balls. They’d twist and hit and watch the ball arc into the air and then out of sight.  Sun glinted on the clubs. A thwack, a laugh. And then quiet.

She leaned forward and saw that her mother’s eyes were closed, but she was not listening to anything, it seemed to her. Wrapped in a Kelly green coat with three-quarter-length sleeves, her mother was breathing fast. Her chest shuddered. It might have been a kind of sob, but she made no sound.

At night—at three o’clock in the morning–silence was nice, and she was thankful for it. It would have been a relief, then, when she was trying to sleep, to hear nothing, rather than the tenth replay of “Red Rose for a Blue Lady.” Her mother loved that song, and played it over and over, singing along at full volume, a water glass of Tyrolia in hand. Why the neighbors never complained, she had no idea.

But here, in the car, after Mass, when they should be home having breakfast, this silence made her stomach hurt. Her mother hadn’t said anything since they’d pulled over and parked here, at Sunny Acres.

After about fifteen minutes of sitting there, with no explanation, she had asked her mother:

“Can we go home now?”

“In a little while.”

Her mother hadn’t said anything else. She asked a couple times more during the first hour, and then her mother stopped answering. Stopped hearing, maybe. So she stopped asking. There was no point in making her mother mad.

But if her mother did get mad, winding up like a dust devil until she was spewing all those words, familiar, but still sharp, how useless a girl she was, and fat, and not nearly as smart as she thought, maybe someone would notice. Maybe someone would finally wonder why this woman in a green coat and a little girl in a pink skirt and sailor-collared blouse had been sitting in their Chevy Impala at this driving range. For three hours now.

Why a driving range? There was nothing for either of them to do. They didn’t golf. She didn’t, anyway. Maybe her mother had once. She seemed to remember a picture of her mother, on a golf course when she was young, with a man her mother said was named Warren.

She had no books, no transistor radio, none of her usual defenses. Sleep was another thing that worked, sometimes. She had tried that in the second hour, without success. She lay back on the seat again though, listening. Bird. Traffic. Thwack. Then a sharp inhale from the front seat, and the click just before the engine started.

She sat up. Her mother slapped the gearshift into reverse and the car lurched out of the parking space. Somebody honked.

The car bumped down the hill. Her mother braked hard. A right turn, a couple miles along Redondo, then a right and another left, and they would be home. Her father was probably awake by now.

The car idled there. A honk behind them. She recited the directions to herself: right, right, left. Home.

Another honk behind them, more insistent this time. Her mother flicked the turn indicator and pulled out, taking a fast, wide left into the street.

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