There was a chair in the front window of my teenage bedroom, but I almost never sat there. It faced into the room, because all there was to see outside was the house across the street, with its dirty-blond buzz-cut of a yard and a security system sign staked by the door. The chair was next to my bookshelf, and as such, it mostly collected books I was too lazy to shelve. The only time I sat in it, that I remember anyway, was the day before I left for college. It was late afternoon, maybe early evening. My dad was standing in the doorway, one shoulder against the frame. He’d been keeping me company while I kneeled on the floor in front of a gaping black suitcase, the biggest one we had, folding clothes and stacking them into its corners. I was tired and cranky and nervous, preoccupied with how much was left to do and how little time there was for it. I clambered up onto the chair.
“This is too hard,” I announced, slumping over my thighs. I was afraid of leaving home and afraid of where I was going, but I never would have said it aloud.
“You’d better get used to it,” Burg replied. “Life is hard. That’s how it is.” He never talked like that. Surely, I figured, he was ribbing me. I looked for the telling smile. It wasn’t there. A weird, crackling silence filled the room. He shoved off the door jamb, walked across the hall to his office, and shut the door.
I was about to turn 19, and I had a plane ticket to northern California, where I would in theory start a new life, my adult life, away from my family. My father was 68. He was still seeing patients, in seemingly good health, living in the house that he and my mother had always wanted. He was happy. But the man wasn’t young. Born in the year of the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, the oldest son of Polish Jews who’d immigrated to Canada and later an immigrant himself, he dragged around all the aches and pains and piles of personal garbage that a human accumulates over seven decades of living. I was supposed to believe him, even if I didn’t want to.
But that thing he said has stayed with me, and I wonder at it sometimes, bat it around, tug at it, like one of June’s hair ties in my pocket. I think I wrote about it in A Homemade Life, actually, though I couldn’t find the passage when I went searching for it. (Maybe one of you knows where it is?) I always think about Burg in the midst of Big Life Stuff: marriage, birth, death, divorce – the moments, I guess, when my story feels too big to hold by myself. I never mean to, but there he is. It occurs to me that I am haunted. I wonder what he would say about who I am now, about June, about Brandon, about the woman I love, about Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office, about Russia. Can you believe we are still talking about “the Russians,” like we’re stuck in a loop of Dr. Strangelove? I wonder why Burg walked away from me that day. Given everything, my life at age 38 and the world we live in, the abyss of which he seemed to be peering down that afternoon, do I get to be happy? How often? How?
I live in the house that Brandon and I bought six years ago last month. Until last August, I had never lived there alone, or as its only adult resident. I can hardly let myself think about what it must have been like for Brandon to leave behind our house and all the plans we had for it. He tells me it’s okay – that it was hard, but it’s okay. “You know me,” he says cheerfully, “I’ll have fun finding a new house someday. I like a new project.”
After the awful strangeness of our separation had started to give way to something different, still strange but strangely less awful, I started to move things around in the house, my house, to make it my own. I stopped waiting for someone else to take out the trash, change the lightbulb, put away the ladder. I threw out the expired prescriptions from the medicine drawer, and the creepy-looking earwax removal kit. I got tired of seeing the hose lolling next to the driveway like a reptile with wasting disease, so I went to Fred Meyer and handed over $29.99 for one of those plastic wheeled caddies you wind a hose around. No one has ever so jubilantly installed a hose caddy.
In January, there was a blockage in the sewer, and it backed up into the red-carpeted bathroom in the dungeon-slash-basement. There might be a metaphor in there somewhere, but I’m going to leave it where it is. Two months later, I can now correctly use the words water mitigation, asbestos abatement, concrete aggregate and trenchless sewer replacement in a sentence. It is not fun to spend money that you don’t really have on something you only appreciate because it means the absence of something you don’t appreciate. But I do now get to replace the carpet, and I don’t worry about the sewer anymore.
Last week, while scooping old ashes out of the fireplace, I noticed a thin, warped sheet of metal on the hearth, and when I lifted it, I found a rectangular hole set into the bricks. I texted Brandon a photograph of it, asking if he knew what it was. “You’re supposed to brush ashes in there,” he texted back. “And then clean them out in the basement by that little door.”
“Wait. There’s a little door in the basement?” I yell-texted into the phone as I ran down the stairs, hoping to find my own private doorway to Narnia. Sure enough, I found a small steel door in the wall of the laundry room, maybe six inches square and rusty. And though it was full, absolutely overflowing with cubic foot upon cubic foot of fireplace ash from the previous owner, the first thing I thought was, Laundry chute! I’ve always wanted a laundry chute – mostly because I want to be tiny like a human Stuart Little and slide down said chute, but also because: laundry chute. For the past six years, I’ve called the stairs to the basement my laundry chute, as I gleefully heaved dirty clothes, towels, and sheets over the railing. As it turns out, I had one all along! Almost! And really not at all! But I have an ash chute, and it thrills me. I intend to use it.
A couple of hours later, as I was coming down from the ash chute discovery, Brandon texted me a photo of June in the living room of his apartment, crouched inside a plain cardboard box that she was calling a puppet theater. There was some sort of frothy tulle situation wrapped around her lower half, and she was waving one of the three dolls she’s named after herself. I guess we’re all building the houses we want to live in. Whenever I’m at the grocery store that stocks the dishwasher detergent that Brandon and I both like, I buy an extra box for his apartment.
I hung a portrait of my dad in the front hall, a black-and-white close-up in which he wears a straw hat and a very knowing, dad-like look. I like having it there, though I don’t actually see it much, the way we stop seeing the walls or the floor. I think he walked away from me that day because he had to. Otherwise, he would have had to watch his last kid leave home. Now he gets to watch me leave every day, and at the end of that day, he gets to watch me come back.
Today it’s been 14 years since my dad died, and in most ways, it seems like longer than that. I’ve done a lot of living – maybe too much? – in those 14 years. But I can still hear his voice in my head, and I can still feel the hug he gave me in our driveway before I left to drive to Seattle for graduate school, in September of 2002. Burg would be 87 now, and I’m sort of glad I never had to see him diminished by old age – or, at least, not more than he was diminished in his last weeks, as cancer had its way with him. He would be glad to know that Mom and I now…Read more
I started my Monday by listening to Blood Orange until my ears fell off, which was nice. Then my friend Jenny told me to watch this (old-news) video (that I somehow had never seen before), and with that, my week is off and running. Hi to you. Now, business: 1. The Guardian kindly invited me to write about a food that evokes home, and I wrote about a dead-simple, bare-cupboard soup that was first made for me by my aunt Tina. That’s her below, on the right, living the early-eighties hot tub life with me and my cousins. Most people thinks that June gets her hair color and texture from Brandon, but world, let it be known that I think she’s got my texture…Read more
I am not, in general, someone who keeps a running catalog of her favorites: favorite movie, favorite book, favorite song, favorite color, favorite number, and so on. A couple of decades ago, if pressed, I might have offered The Shawshank Redemption as my favorite movie, because I have a thing for Tim Robbins, and I also have a thing for Morgan Freeman’s voice, and, of course, it’s also a first-rate story. But then I moved to Seattle and rekindled my teenage love for Singles, which you know all about because I mention it near-constantly, and because it’s the only movie I can actually quote lines from. Still, I don’t know that I’d call it my favorite. That’s a strong word, and it scares…Read more
My mother tells me that she had always loved the house. She used to drive by and admire it. When I was thirteen, it came on the market, and she and my dad snatched it up. The house was built in 1948, old for Oklahoma, painted brick with wrought iron and ivy. It needed a lot of work, and they tore out walls and opened it up, changed everything. It was their biggest, finest collaboration, and they made it exactly what they wanted. It was weird in ways, or maybe quirky is the better word, with a mirror on the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom and Pepto-Bismol pink wallpaper in the dining room. But mostly it was beautiful, obscenely beautiful, full of…Read more
From the summer of 2006 until the early spring of 2011, we lived in a nondescript duplex on 8th Avenue that shared the block with some other nondescript duplexes and one notably terrifying exception that we referred to as Boo Radley’s house. I didn’t love the neighborhood, but it was mostly fine, and after we adopted Jack, I got to know it well, because Jack, being a terrier, needed a lot of walking. We found our habits. If the sun was out, we’d walk up to the P-Patch at 60th and 3rd and ogle people’s tomatoes and dahlias; if it was raining, I’d drag him for a quick loop around the block; and if it was evening, dark already but…Read more
A month of summer gone already! I don’t want to think about it. I rediscovered my Fuji Instax over the weekend and have been firing off shots like I were made of money. That’s another thing I’ve decided not to think about. I want June to have photo albums from her childhood – proper, three-dimensional albums! With the requisite wonky Polaroids! Like the olden days! Next up: suspenders and a paper route! – so I’m not allowed to fuss over the cost of film or the stupid, stupid, stupid flash that goes off whether I want it or not. Babies: they get your priorities straight. I appreciate that. Though I wouldn’t mind sleeping past 6:30 again someday. It seems like…Read more
I’d been planning to put up a post tonight about some meatballs that June has been into lately (MEAT! MEAT! she yells; I think you can imagine it). They’re delicious, served in broth with peas and grated Parmesan, ugly but molto Italian. But then, possibly because it is June 1st, the sun came out and the day got hot, and meatballs felt very wrong. Instead, first thing this morning, I texted a friend to propose a late afternoon trip to the beach with a picnic dinner for our two babies, who are really now toddlers. And then Brandon and I ran into a couple of new friends and their two children at the farmers’ market, so I invited them, too.…Read more
Felt like it
HELLOOOOOOOO I’m just off the plane from a week in Oklahoma City with June and my mother, clearing out my teenage bedroom. Fun-wise, it was right up there with surgery in the pre-anesthesia era, especially my senior prom Party Pics. On the upside, Mom and I made a wonderful pea soup (only with half the amount of ham hock, and with dried herbs instead of fresh) and worked our way through approximately four bars of chocolate and an undisclosed amount of wine, and I determined (take note!!!) that the only way to handle letters from exes and otherwise is to shove them dutifully in a box and then pray it gets lost in the mail. We woke up too early every day,…Read more
Always to acclaim
Happy Two Days After Valentine’s Day! I hope you celebrated in style, which is more than we did. I typed most of this post on Valentine’s night, while Brandon worked at Delancey, slinging pizzas for all the lovers. I did, however, rally to bake a banana bread. Nothing says, I love you (or, You married your grandmother), like a banana bread on Valentine’s Day. This is not a post about banana bread, just to clarify. This is a post about lime curd. Not lemon curd, but lime: “the superlative citrus,” as our friend Niah, who is also the bar manager of Essex, likes to say. And if it seems like I only post sweets and baked goods anymore, I know, I know,…Read more
It made an impression
I had to get a new computer last week, one of few life events with the power to make a person feel both elated and completely bankrupt. After I brought it home, while I waited for my blood pressure to stabilize, I combed through the files that had been on my old computer and happened to find a document that I had forgotten, a recipe for a brown sugar clafoutis with pears. BROWN SUGAR CLAFOUTIS! WITH PEARS! I made the clafoutis last week, and again yesterday, and then I hustled over here to tell you about it with an oddly colored iPhone photo of my leftovers. I had clafoutis for the first time when I was 23. It came to…Read more
I am typing this post from the back office at Delancey, where I’m holed up, working on a deadline, while Brandon and Co. prepare a five-course meal for forty-five in celebration of a gorgeous new book. Deadline: I will destroy you. In more ways than one. But I had to take a break to pop into this space, and to send up a cheer – if you can, in fact, hear me from back here behind the Essex walk-in – that it has been nine years today since this site was born. Nine! I was a delinquent graduate student then, giddy to be creating a space to write about things other than Michel Foucault and discourse analysis and anything described…Read more
Last night, it occurred to me that I had inadvertently neglected to write down something important: that June’s head smells like strawberry jam. I’ve thought about it for a long time, trying to make sure that was it, and now I’m certain: not strawberries, but strawberry jam. She smells like something I would like to eat on buttered toast. Now there’s a menu idea for Delancey. Brandon bought himself a record player as an early Father’s Day present, and he’s been buying old records left and right. The other day he came home with Cat Stevens’s Tea for the Tillerman. The next morning, before he woke up, June and I were hanging out, like we do every morning, and I turned on…Read more
You women who manage to keep up smart, articulate blogs while raising young children? You women who manage to keep up smart, articulate blogs while working and raising young children and doing all that household stuff that most of us wind up doing? I throw myself at your feet. I don’t have anything remotely original or insightful to say on the subject; I just think you’re remarkable. I have childcare twelve hours a week, jobs with flexible hours, a supportive spouse, and a kid who (usually) sleeps well (please don’t let this jinx me, please don’t let this jinx me), and yet I fight to get to this space. Of course, part of the problem could be that, each night,…Read more
She felt like cheering
I have three half-siblings. I know I’ve told you that before, probably lots of times. My half-siblings are a decent bit older than me, so growing up, they often seemed more like uncles and an aunt. I was an only child, mostly. But my mother came from a big family, and she had an identical twin sister named Tina. Though Tina lived in California and we lived in Oklahoma, she and my mother did their best to make sure that their children, my cousins Sarah and Katie and I, would feel close as we grew up. I fell in love with the West Coast – and, I’m sure, wound up living here – because of trips we took to visit…Read more
To poach a pear
My mother is usually the one who makes poached pears. I have a photo of her in an old family album, holding a platter of them. By the length of her hair, I’m guessing that the year was 1982. My father must have snapped the picture as they were leaving for a holiday party. That was the kind of thing he liked to do. She’s standing in the wood-paneled den of the house we lived in until I was 13, wearing what appears to be a sand-colored fur jacket. She must have curled her hair with hot rollers, because it sits on her shoulders in soft loops, and where she’s pinned it back above her left ear, you can see…Read more
I come from a family that goes to church only on occasional Christmas Eves, but somehow, I have come to love the feeling of being inside a church. I like the high ceilings, the wood and the stone and the gold leaf, and I like them best when they’re empty. There’s no other silence like it. My favorite church is in Paris, and it’s called Saint-Sulpice. I first loved it because my grandmother loved it, but now I love it because I do. I never forget to go to Saint-Sulpice. I usually go on a weekday, when it’s quiet, and I make sure that I have some coins on me, so that I can light a candle. My grandmother used…Read more
I sat down to write this post last night at a kitchen table in Edinburgh. My friend Gemma was making barley soup, and Christophe was at the sink behind me, doing the last dishes from breakfast. If you had told me three weeks ago that I would be in their kitchen last night, I would have looked at you like you’d grown a second head. For once, I like being wrong. We’ve been talking about a feeling that sometimes comes with plane or train travel, and maybe the best name for it is Bonus Time. You’re in the plane or the train, and you can see the world outside the window, and you’re hurtling through it, but it’s very far…Read more
How it is
I think I might have told you about my father’s friend Michael. Sometime in the early ‘90s, Burg was on his way out of the grocery store, and being something of a car buff, he stopped to check out a Citroën in the parking lot. While he stood there with his grocery bags, the owner of the car came along – or maybe the owner was in the car; these details are long gone – and he turned out to be a man named Michael. They struck up a conversation, and something must have clicked, because for years after that, they were best friends. Michael was a native New Yorker, a former cab driver-slash-writer turned small business owner, intense and…Read more
You might hear someone sing
My family is not having the Christmas that you hear about in carols and television specials. I am typing this from California, where we were supposed to arrive next Tuesday for the holiday festivities, but instead I flew down six days early to help take care of my aunt, who is in the hospital. My mother is here, too, and my aunt’s two daughters, my cousins. My aunt came down with an acute illness, very fast and sudden and serious, but after more than a week in the hospital, she’s going to be alright. Today she even cracked a joke. I was so elated that I tried out a couple of bad puns, and she actually laughed at them. It…Read more
She got out a skillet
I should begin with a confession: I’m not in Thanksgiving mode yet. Who knows. It’s weird. This holiday sort of sneaks up, I’ve noticed, and then it’s quickly eclipsed by Christmas, which is sad, since Thanksgiving is our only national holiday devoted wholly to eating. This year, we’re heading to New Jersey to visit family, and I will almost certainly make cranberry chutney and probably a chocolate pecan pie, but it’s been hard to plan from a distance. Thanksgiving of 2010, I apologize. I’ll do better next year. On the upside, I ate almost two pounds of carrots today. I’m not sure why, but I keep thinking about my host mother. I haven’t seen her for ten years, but still,…Read more
Now here, now there
I have two half brothers who live on the East Coast, and when I was a kid, if they came home for the holidays, they would bring a Styrofoam cooler of oysters. My father would get out his knife and shucking glove and lean against the kitchen counter, flicking grit and shells into the sink as he went, and they would all stand around, eating and sighing, making the noises that people make when they eat oysters. I don’t know how old I was that night, but I think I must have been about six. I stood next to my father while he shucked, and he leaned down and gave me an oyster, a fat one, an enormous one, amoeba-like,…Read more
Before you know it
Somewhere, a woman named Corentine is serving leeks vinaigrette for dinner. It’s been ten years, but I know it. Corentine was my host mother in Paris, the year that I was 21 and studying abroad. She had the most magnificent name I had ever heard and something a little Jane Birkin, just a little, about her looks. Whenever someone asks me how I learned to cook or how I got into food, I usually credit my parents, but I should also credit Corentine. She and I didn’t have a lot in common, but food was enough, and we seized it. I ate at her table for six months, and she taught me what she thought I should know. She taught…Read more
Delancey is one year old today. I took that picture, the one above, 16 months ago. Brandon had bought a 30-quart Hobart mixer a few months earlier, and we’d been storing it in our friend Carla’s basement. Our friend Sam named it Sir Mix-a-Lot. That morning, the morning that I took the picture, we had rented a big truck, wrestled Sir Mix-a-Lot into the back, strapped him in, and hauled him to the restaurant. The thing was so heavy, such a mess to move, and I had no idea how to operate it, and I was excited and intimidated and borderline terrified, and mostly, more than anything, I had no clue how we were ever going to get this restaurant…Read more
Her recipe box
Well. That was not at all what I planned for the month of April. So long, April. So long, plans. I want to get this show back on the road. I’ve missed being here, and I’ve missed you. But before we go any further, I want to offer a long overdue thank you to those who came to my readings last month. I thought I had a great time on my first tour, but somehow, I had an even better time this year, despite the fact that I was dealing with a whopping case of laryngitis and could hardly speak. I hope you could hear me, and that you enjoyed it. It made me so happy to meet you. I’ll…Read more
Not a likely love
Well, would you look at that! Yesterday was Saint Patrick’s Day, and how fitting, I’m writing about scones! Which are Irish, of course – and, well, also Scottish, and English, and generally British, but anyway, they’re Thatapproximatepartoftheworldish, at least. I should quit while I’m ahead. When I was growing up, my elementary school was near a health food store called the Earth. It was not a large place, nor was it fancy. It was not Whole Foods. It was small and low-ceilinged, lit with fluorescent tubes and lined with vitamins in brown bottles and beeswax chapstick and sesame bars in plastic wrappers, and it smelled like lentil soup. There was a cafe at one end where they served sandwiches and…Read more
A nasty habit
I have many important things to tell you. 1. I’m doing a podcast! I intended to tell you about this a week ago, but there’s been an illness in my family, and I’ve been away, and it hasn’t been a lot of fun, so, you know, let’s talk about that podcast. It’s called Spilled Milk, and I co-host it with my friend Matthew Amster-Burton. Every time we record an episode, Matthew makes me laugh until I snort, cry, hyperventilate, and/or hoot like an owl, and I hope our show does the same for you. The first episode is on the topic of fried eggs, and you can listen or download it – free! – through the Spilled Milk website, or…Read more
Big, bad, banana
I was not an easy child. I was afraid of thunderstorms, and of the vacuum cleaner. My head was so big that I would wind up in tears when my mother tried to wedge it through a turtleneck. I was terrified of needles, so much so that nurses had to sit on me to give me my booster shots. Even sweet, wrinkly E.T. scared the crap out of me, with his weird misshapen head and creepy glowing finger. And on top of all that, I hated bananas. Kids are supposed to love bananas — when all else fails, that, at least, is supposed to be easy. My poor, patient mother did her best. To ease her mind, she once consulted…Read more