Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tortured Soul

My sister has a serious problem but I don't think it requires a therapist or a doctor.  Just some serious understanding from those around her. I discovered something about her that really surprised me. She does not like ivy. My sister and I were sitting on a low-walled rock fence looking out over the landscape of changing colors, drinking some hot coffee in the cool air. Summer was fading away and bountiful autumn was stepping in taking over the scene. Across the way there was an meandering ivy plant, showing off its progress last spring as it made its way along the fence, relinquishing itself to the change in season. It was absolutely stunning, with its deep reds, oranges, yellows, dirty purples and greens. Maybe it was the caffeine boost I got from the coffee, but I couldn't stop talking about it. I went back in time reflecting back when I lived on the East coast with all the mature buildings and vegetation, nearly forgetting my sister was even sitting next to me. When I got back to being in our moment, I noticed how ominously quiet she was. Not a smile, nod or contribution to the conversation. You see, she never looked at the fence. Instead, she sat very quietly looking at her steamy reflection in the coffee tapping the side of her paper cup. "What's wrong sister?", I asked. She replied quietly but with a little hesitation, "The ivy... I don't see it that way, I see a mess". I couldn't tell if she was disappointed, sad or sick. There was an awkward moment of silence followed by a very deep thought when I suddenly busted up laughing. My sister had a problem with ivy!! You see, when I see beautiful ivy growing on a building or fence, I see a cute hobbit house or a stately building. I see a blending of nature and architecture. My gosh, I experience art, colors, texture, shapes, composition, moods. However, my poor sister sees an invasion, a plague. She sees rats. She sees little tendrils slipping into cracks and making bigger cracks. Simply put, she is a tortured soul.

I continue to laugh with complete abandoned, shamelessly not taking my sisters recently unveiled neuroses into consideration. It all makes sense now. Her windows on her turn-of-the-century home are the best caulked windows in the northern hemisphere. How many times have I called her and she is got her caulking gun, sealing the windows around her house. If she isn't shopping for food, she is caulking. Thinking back on our childhood, I believe there is a very good explanation for her caulking and ivy-phobe behavior. Our older brother, during high school, had a part-time job cutting ivy from a condominium complex.  Any opportunity to creep us out, he did! He would go into detail about the rats, mice and voles living in the thick, lush, ground cover and the hundreds upon hundreds of snails, slugs and spiders. Admittedly, I have been forever cautious around ivy and always think twice about stepping in it, but my sister? I think she processed it a little differently. Ivy vines, Spanish Moss, and ground cover pose a serious life threat to her, squeezing the last bit of oxygen from her lungs, suffocating her into a complete state of stupor. All I can say is, thank goodness for home depot and caulking goo. Secretly, I think she keeps a little syringe of it in her purse...just in case.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 14, 1933

"Where did you go?" These were the last words my mother whispered to my father as she quietly wept while bending over him to kiss him for the very last time. You see, today is his birthday. He would have been 76 years old. This is the first time he is not around to celebrate his day. Birthdays were very important to him, in fact, they were more important than any holiday or celebration. They were days that signified birth, a new beginning and hope - a day truly for the "self" and not for others. It is my hope for him that he is resting in peace and pain free. He could never really get to sleep towards the end of his life. Pain, fear, anxiety and frustration took over and managed to beat him down in the end. However, he did not pass away in pain or fear. He merely slipped away, very peacefully, finally getting that well-deserved rest that he really wanted. It was the best I had ever seen him in months and in retrospect, years.

My father was someone who was suppose to live forever. Really. He had that "larger than life" personality that drew people to him and sometimes had them running away. Not to sound disrespectful, this is just how a gregarious, affable, stubborn personality is. To be any other way would simply not be him. He was 75 when he departed, young by current life expectancy charts, but it was a big life. More life than most living 20 years more. Was he finished with life? I don't think so. This is where his frustration set in. But, did he have a life that was full of exploration, love, loss, education, travel, family, friends, failure and success? Oh yes! It was a big life. I think he would want me to not sit and squander ( his words) my life away, re-living or immortalizing his life. Rather, learn and live the life that is mine. My mother and I came upon a writing of author and poet, William Saroyan, amongst his paperwork that he had printed into stationery. We assumed he was going to send it to his friends and family. I renamed it, "Vahak's Credo on Life". No other words sum up his life so eloquently than these very words so simply stated:

You must believe
that as much as death in inevitable,
life is inevitable...

Try as much as possible to be wholly alive,
with all your might.

And when you laugh, laugh like hell,
and when you get angry, get good and angry.

Try to be alive.
You will be dead soon enough."

Every time I read this I feel as though I am standing in front of him or sitting beside him waiting to have a conversation.
The other day, while driving in the hills, where he lived,  my husband remarked that it seemed very strange that my father was not here. His presence and light were always commanding attention. Is he just away on a vacation or extended trip somewhere? No. He just went away.

Happy Birthday Dad.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Fixing Hair

My foody sister is very funny sometimes. This morning I tried calling her at home but didn't get a hold of her. I called back an hour later and I knew I was bugging her but she was still polite and kindly said, "I am sorry sister but I have to dry my hair, you know how it is, you have to time it right, just like tossing salad dressing into a salad". Strangely I understood this. So I hung up.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Typewriter

What snaps when pushed, clicks when you feed it, and dings at the end? A very hormonal me? Except I don't recall clicking when I eat. The real answer is a manual typewriter.

The other day my mother rushes in my house (never with the intention of staying) and with no certain purpose except to tell me she was cleaning out her closets and drops off a square hard case by the front door. Instantly I recognize it as her childhood Royal Quiet De Luxe Typewriter circa 1950. I could not even get coffee into her mouth or offer her a biscotti and she was out the door and back in her car. Kind of befuddled but interested, I open the familiar box and a swell of smells and memories came back to me. I can remember sitting at this very machine (green, metallic and cold to the touch) planning to write my great american novel when I was in the 6th grade. I would put carbon paper in the roller and ambitiously plan to have 2 copies of my novel ready to publish. My novel was always kind of a Pippy Longstocking adventure that took place in New York City. With so much to see and write about I never got very far, but I just loved seeing the words appear magically on the paper as I typed.

That same afternoon, my son walks through the door with the fall sun behind him and we chat about his day at school. He begins to tells me about a big book report soon due (something he is dragging his feet on). I take this as my prompt and I suddenly jump up and run to the front door and bring the box. I told him Grandma had brought a present for him. " A laptop computer?" he says. I open the box and he could hardly contain himself. Who would have thought this machine would have set off a litany of questions about ink, the American Typewriter font, the mechanical workings, and on and on. He took the box and put it on his lap ( hold over from his laptop days) and snapped away. There was no ink in the typewriter so we decide right there and then to take a ride downtown and visit the store, Los Altos Typewriter and Business Machines, that is so famous for all things that type. The owner, John, is a passionate man for these beauties and gave my son the thumbs up after replacing the ribbon ink on his "new"typewriter and off we went.

As soon as we were home, he disappeared into his bedroom, placed the box on his desk, and closed his bedroom door. I heard the "clicking" of paper being fed into the rollers, the "snap" of the keys and always the "ding" signaling to return the carriage to begin the next line. The rest of the afternoon I felt energized as I heard the familiar sounds down the hall, the snap, click and ding of my 6th grade son writing his next novel or book report?

An interesting side story to this typewriter is the missing typeface on one of the type bars. My father, when he was a young mechanical engineering student at Berkeley used my mother's typewriter but was easily frustrated by any machine failing to meet his needs. Unfortunately, not even a simple typewriter could escape his furor. In the not too distant future, this frustration would extend to computers ( but let's keep it simple here). So, his frustration was not being able to correct his mistakes on the fly without stopping and using some goopy white out or little strips of paper to correct his typo mistakes. Mind you, this is in the 1950's so there were some keys on the typewriter that were more expendable than others. So he filed down the @ on the typebar and made it smooth hoping to transform it into a correction key. Whoa, what was he thinking? If he only knew he was wiping out the single most iconic character that would someday transform his future grandson's life.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What's in your pantry, Sister?

My sister, who is a very creative cook, cleaned out her pantry. Mind you, this is no ordinary pantry. Nine out of ten times when I call her, she is checking out in a grocery line and must call me back ( she is polite that way, never likes to be talking on her cell phone when she is doing business). Name the store, she is usually there; Costco, Safeway, Berkeley Bowl, novelty grocery stores, Middle Eastern, Mexican Bakery's, and the list goes on. You have to wonder why she has to shop at all when she has a mega box of baking soda, a millennium's worth of Krusteaz Waffle mix and a dozen boxes of little birthday candles that would make any 50-year old cry because we could never live that long to see all these candles lit. But, she also has an eclectic collection of spices, herbs, oils, syrups and vinegars, mostly homemade and homegrown. These little homemade potions are most likely the secrets to her dishes, which make them impossible to reproduce. If you ask how to make them,  you have to listen to an exhausting re-enactment of how she infused her syrup with fresh lavender and an assortment of spices. So you want her recipe? Sure, she'll give it to you, but always with a smirk that stretches half way up the side of face. She knows, you won't be able to reproduce her little secrets that transform her dishes in taste, color, texture and yes, sound. Some of her dishes make sounds. When I bite into a biscotti, the crunch sets off a thunderstorm between my ears, only to be mellowed by a sip of her coffee, also unusually scented.

Back to the pantry. Suffering from "empty nest syndrome", as her daughters have recently moved to New York City and Los Angeles, she finds herself staring at the pantry swearing up and down the hall, wondering why does she still shop for bulk? Why do I know this? Read on. She enjoys cooking, especially for her daughters and their friends (who are not around as much anymore). Her husband enjoys her cooking too, but seriously, does she need a flock of chickens in her freezer? I am guessing one day she asked herself that because she calls me up and puts me on the speaker phone. Not even a hello after I pick up the phone, I hear...
"Do your kids like waffles?"
" Yes"
"Do your kids like whole wheat pasta?"
" Yes"
"How about almond butter?
"No, but I'll try, OK?"( She is beginning to bug me)
"How about quinoa?"
"Keen-what? "
"How about a case of stewed tomatoes ?"
"What is going on here sister, why all the questions?"
Finally she reply's, "I am cleaning my pantry!"

Within 48 hours she is at my doorstep with nearly 7 over-sized bags filled with food that would even send a good and conscientious Mormon running to Costco to fill their shelves.
We manage to transfer the food from the bags to my shelves while I am secretly wondering when is the next 'Scouting for Food' drive. I know her intentions are good and I gladly accept the food knowing it is helping her to adopt a "smaller" lifestyle, and perhaps, just maybe, she will buy cute little jars of capers instead of the gallon size ones that would fit better in pathology lab somewhere. 

That same evening while sitting around my home, I suggest we cook dinner. Without even a sigh, a grunt or thinking she was going to get the night off from cooking, she jumped up and started rummaging through my pantry. With so much enthusiasm and zeal she is off at a dizzy speed.  Here we go! With no recipe in hand, she whipped out a tasty dinner that was to the delight of all. Simple roasted russet potatoes and yellow bell peppers with savory sausages, sauted in a cast iron pan with olive oil, sea salt and pepper. She also prepared creamy lemon pasta sauce with basil and garlic served over garganelli pasta. Lastly, she prepared thin beans with crimini mushrooms, olive oil, sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. To round out the meal and appeal to a different part of our palate, she prepared a side of fresh peaches with a hint of vanilla and raw sugar and  fresh mint. Our taste buds were screaming with joy. Simple as it sounds, the food was delicious. Do you want the recipe? Unfortunately, even I can't reproduce all the flavors because, once again, she prepared the meal and there is  something about the way she cuts, flavors and adjusts the heat under the food that draws out flavors that a recipe just can't get into words.

Cleaning a pantry isn't so bad when you are on the receiving end. And, it's just a good thing I had cleaned out mine a month before (I must have seen this one coming).  I did notice, however, she did NOT bring over the homespun spices, vinegars, oils and syrups.  More gratefully,  the gallon jar of capers did not show up either!