During this last difficult year, I’ve been involved in making a book with my first sister Nina. Working with her on the page has felt like a safe haven, a return to our childhood. We moved often with our restless and adventuresome parents, the two of us the awkward, unmoored “new girls in school.” But at the end of every day we could count on the sureness of each other, because in every house and every town, we slept in the same room in twin beds.
Putting together our book, NOW WE ARE SIXTY, has been another chance for Nina and me to spend time together, side by side. Our 112 pp. book pairs my memoir pieces with Nina’s intuitive, improvisational inks on paper, as we reflect on our history growing up in a musical family, on our long marriages and the bittersweetness of aging, on the loss of our elegant violinist mother to Alzheimer’s, and on the good luck we feel to be two of four sisters.
We are so happy to share this labor of love first with readers. NOW WE ARE SIXTY is now available for pre-order, just in time for the holidays, the new year, or anytime you need the comfort of words and art and older women.
NOW WE ARE SIXTY can be ordered through this live link and will be shipped to you by mail, or delivered to you in person by me. For those of you who’ve followed our progress on this website, thank you! We felt your air under our wings, lifting us up up up!
We may never get to India, but we can fix Indian food, learn the fragrant masala spices – fenugreek, cumin, coriander – discovered by the explorers and traded like jewels. We might fix tandoori chicken, coconut butter cauliflower, master curries the color of gold. Naan is as flat and wide as a frisbee. But roti steals the show: buttery, flaky, every bite a joy. Kachumber salad made of cucumbers cools the heat, and quenches.
As the crow flies, Cuba is not even an hour away from New Orleans. We let the ropa viejo – old rags – cook all day. While we wait, we smash sandwiches in the Foreman grill so melted cheese runs out the sides and the edges of the meat crisp. We chomp and listen to Ruben Gonzales at the piano.
Stale bread recycles with pleasure into croutons. Butter, salt and pepper, the chunks baked to make them crunch, the warmth filling our kitchen with the smell of rescued bread. What else can we fix from what we might otherwise throwaway? A website is selling ugly, unwanted vegetables and fruits. Not camera ready for grocery stores, but perfectly edible. Rescued from garbage cans, they fill stomachs that don’t judge.
There’s an Ethiopian restaurant on Magazine Street; tiny, painted burnt red and off the street. How soon can we go? The food is communal: lamb stews and sautéed eggplant, scooped up with addictive rubbery injera. In Rome one Christmas when everything Catholic was closed, an Ethiopian restaurant took us in. While the wife cooked in the back, the husband brought out giant, cold cans of beer before delivering a steaming platter to the middle of the table. No plates or utensils were needed, just appetites, and humans, reaching.
When I see gummy candies at check out, I miss my son. The red cherries on green stems, the peach flavored peaches, blue Smurfs that stain the tongue. Long ago, he dared me to eat sour patch kids. “Just take one taste, Mom.” What an assault on my tender buds. I lean toward Swedish Fish! Are they raspberry? It doesn’t matter. They’re two bites of yum that get stuck in my flipper denture, so I eat them toothless. A few times, I’ve left home without the flipper and didn’t remember until I lisped or smiled. It’s not a bad feeling, to give your mouth more space, although the tongue can’t stop worrying the place. “Take care of your teeth,” I tell my son, just so he’ll say “Okay, Mom,” because him calling me Mom never gets old. When he’s home again, we’ll eat worms.
New Year’s Eve, Mom watched fireworks on the TV in her apartment not in the lobby with the residents and staff. They treat her well and with curiosity. “Won’t you play for us?” the staff says. They’ve noticed the violin case beside the bed. This is where my mother keeps what she worries the staff will steal, which is becoming everything she owns.
I called the next day from Queens. “I need my new wheelchair,” she said. “Because I can’t leave my room.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s on the way.”
She was watching football. She’s from Detroit, but her teams are the Packers and the Saints. “Will they play each other in the Super Bowl?” she asked.
“Not likely,” I said. “Are you watching in the living room?” I asked.
“In my bedroom,” she said. “Where I’m stuck until you get me the right wheelchair.”
I promise her when I’m back, I’ll bring her a slice of key lime pie, a box of the Ritz crackers she lavishes with her peanut butter, and almond-scented hand cream because flower smells irritate her, when she used to radiate the gentlest rose scent, a scent I wear for her.
I fear the returning and re-trying, re-delivering, re-assembling, all the re words that have no resolution but are required to get her into the correct wheelchair I don’t believe exists. Because all she is now is uncomfortable. Why doesn’t our mother sleep under the caress of sheets? Does she miss her flowy nightgowns? The blinds are snapped shut, a deeper burrowing, a narrowing of a shrinking space. Doesn’t she miss the sun kissing her face? She will never walk again, but will she stand? The love seat in the other room is unused, unloved, until someone visits, a daughter bringing with her a wheelchair.
When we were in our early twenties and unmarried, Nina and I would sit outside with our mom, drink white wine out of Polish crystal, watch squirrels give chase across the low brick wall that lined her patio. Gouda and apple slices and English water crackers would appear. We’d be dressed hippie casual in jeans, boots and gauzy pastel shirts, shades of mango, yellow, lilac, and Mom would have on creased slacks, flat sandals, and a silk shirt in an elegant subtle pattern of browns and tans, like a pintail duck, gliding across the surface. We smoked different brands: Kents for mom, menthol lights for my sister and me. We shared one lighter, one ashtray. We didn’t worry about our lungs even though Mom had been quarantined in her twenties with tuberculosis. Our dad didn’t smoke; he’d be inside watching the nightly news, letting the girls talk, like girls do.
Even through our thirties, when we’d come for dinner with our husbands, Nina and I gravitated to the patio, where we felt more sophisticated, more seasoned drinking wine with our mother. We had kids and no longer smoked, but mom did. Our husbands would watch the news with Dad and let us have our Sadie Hawkins moment, as if this time was theirs to give before the real business of women making and serving men dinner. Over drinks, our mom seemed to enjoy hearing her daughters chatter about our jobs, our travels, our giggly re-hashing of high school misdeeds and hi-jinx, the PG version, because our mother did not like to be foiled.
And now, Nina and I are in our early sixties. Mom is in her early eighties and no longer drinking or smoking, even though the home has a daily and crowded happy hour for their seniors, with celery sticks, Ritz crackers and pimento cheese, a full bar. Mom eats in her room if she eats at all. She wears soft faded sweats and bulbous shoes that put no pressure on her sore feet.
On our first night in London, we meet our son in the lounge for martinis. We’ve fled Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He’s got a head full of thick, rambunctiously graying hair even before he hits thirty, which will be next month. In the pocket of his jacket, he’s stuffed a book by George Orwell because tube time is reading time. He’s a historian, packing his brain with what’s left to know. We hug and turn sheepish, first, then rubbery because we are reunited, then peckish since his dad and I haven’t eaten since the airplane and Andrew is always hungry. He sits between us so we can both hear him. It’s hard not to gawk at this human we raised. On the small table, plates of olives, fried fish, scones, and cheddar melties appear. The hotel is near the palace and across from the mews, where horses live in style. Inside, the Queen keeps her preferred dogs, corgies, when any breed would gladly sit at her feet, study her with love-filled eyes.
Next month, Andrew will defend his PhD and he’s having a crisis of intellectual worth. Is his 300-page thesis an info dump, or a dive into fresh thinking? “The latter,” his dad and I assure him, but what do we know? “Did you think you’d be a historian when you were a high school kid in New Orleans?” I ask, because it’s safe to interview an older child. We didn’t know if he’d settle in the arts, journalism, photography, careers his dad and I imagined for him. “I never liked history,” our son says. His story is my story is his father’s story is my father’s and mother’s story: one brilliant teacher opens the door of a room you enter and never leave. And you in turn become that mentor who introduces you to yourself.
Excerpts from QUARANTENA – the next book I’m working on with my sister Nina – found a home in a new international literary journal: Love in the Time of COVID: A Chronicle of a Pandemic. It’s the brainchild of New Zealand-based editors Michelle Elvy and Witi Ihimaera, who have created a space for stories from around the world that hold up our humanity and enrich our lives.