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Posts Tagged ‘Women and Culture’

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Ouch. It’s January 2009, and wallets previously ready to fly open at the slightest beckoning call of the local free-range organic rabbit (head still on, bones intact, tiny tail bone looking rather pitiful now shed of its cute fluffy fur) for $7 per pound – which effectively makes the cost of the meat shorn of the bones somewhere around $15 per pound – those wallets are balking.

But it is not 1940. And we are not in London. And we are not kept busy in the ways the Women Firewatchers shown in the above photograph (from British Vogue in 1940 by Lee Miller) were kept actively busy at that time.

But getting back to the wallets of 2009. Some will still open. Many more will not.

Pain shows in the hearts and faces of men and women when facing their finances. Not only have their retirement funds been hobbled but food – right now – today! – is becoming more and more expensive. What’s a person to do?

This poverty is a different shape, here and now in 2009, than it has been in times past. For aside from the fact that the grocery stores are still filled to over-brimming with every product from almost everywhere in the world, there is the question of those wallets. Are those wallets as damaged as they have been in past times of hardship? Not being an economist, I can’t answer that.

But I do know that in past times though there may have been mortgage payments and utility bills and all the usual expenses of day-to-day life, there was no monthly cell-phone bill . . . there was no monthly cable or internet connection bill . . . there was no high health insurance payment due . . . there usually was not a second or third car payment bill due . . . and let’s not even start talking about the cost of a higher-education where funds must be saved or financed for the Masters or Ph.D rather than for the Bachelors degree – which now for the most part is about as useful to the job-seeker as a High School degree was in times past – useful, that is, as a mere nod into the door of a low-paying entry job.

In times of hardship one looks to times of past hardships for answers: what to do, how to survive. There’s also the sense of seeking reassurance that indeed, people did survive. They did live and love and eat and hate and plot and plan and dream and finally either regain their feet – or if not – simply go on living, somehow.

One of our most-revered writers on life, food, and hungers – MFK Fisher – wrote a huge body of work during the 1940’s during times of war and some hardships. Consider the Oyster (1941) was written as she and her husband Dillwyn Parrish fled a war-torn Europe to come back to the US. Dillwyn was dying – in a most painful way – in a way where his body was slowly, bit by bit, being claimed by Buerger’s disease. How to Cook A Wolf was published in 1942 – the year when the rationing (already in place in England) finally came to US shores.

Tires were the first item to be rationed in January 1942 because supplies of natural rubber were interrupted. Soon afterward, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were rationed by November 1943.[3] (Source wiki-rationing-US)

How To Cook A Wolf is full of information about how to survive when there is little to survive on. I’ve read this book more than once, in varying circumstances. The time I most appreciated it was when I moved to Paris into a wonderful apartment whose heating system required the insertion of coins into a small box on the wall. It seemed apt to read MFKF then and there.

Much of what is in this book will not be accepted by today’s readers, looking for answers in terms of ‘what to eat’ when the pocketbook is hurting. Gently given advice to ‘Go fishing for your dinner‘, or to ‘Gather wild foods for the one daily meal’, and ‘Eat mush‘ (recipe provided) come to mind.

In 1943 MFKF published The Gastronomical Me – to my mind the greatest of her works. Here is life, punctuated by food. Food is the thing that binds, that ties, that rocks, that cradles – a river that the larger themes of existence flow upon, with the prose of MFKF as wind goddess moving it all along.

Then followed a novel, then the translation of Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste, and An Alphabet for Gourmets.

There are many ways to face being pinched by the dollar. As for myself, I won’t try cooking and eating mush – unless I really have to. And I am grateful that my days are not spent scanning the skies for warplanes and fires.

But I will read MFK Fisher. And not just only (or not even substantially) for the advice she gives (though some of it is good).

I’ll read her just for her words, alone. They’re better in some ways than even the most perfect slab of Kobe beef.

An added bonus? They are sustainable.
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Live recording of Billie Holiday from the 1940’s: Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

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(This is Part 5 of 5, of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas‘)
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My other two mothers, the ones whose stories have been told, were Rida and Ada. Naturally, following my rather far-fetched reasoning process, these names came from the Magi.

the Armenians have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma

Rida from Badadakharida; Ada from Badadilma.

I’ve saved the name Kagpha for my ‘real’ mother. It suits her well.

As Christmas approached each year, Kagpha grew slightly more frozen than usual. Thanksgiving was a task managed, but then Christmas arrived so quickly.

The important things about Christmas to Kagpha were that it not be celebrated as a religious holiday (for she did not like churches) and that there be a tree – one that was not real (too messy) – and that it be covered with ornaments that were artistic and ‘different’.

She mostly looked forward to the holiday as a time when there would be the chance to travel home, or to where home was as a child – where her brother and his wife and children lived. This took all pressure off the holiday, for her brother’s wife was (as she noted with a certain tone in her voice) a ‘housewife’. This meant that Kagpha would be able to sit on the couch in her more and more frozen-like state, as the activity went on around her, without her participation.

Kagpha may have suffered from depression. Or, it may also have been what her brother claimed: That she was simply a deeply selfish person.

Things got worse than mere frozen-ness, as Christmas came along over the years. Instead of frozen-ness Kagpha had a sense of airy-ness – as if she simply wasn’t there. Then there was a switch, and Christmas-time became a time to celebrate the season as a Wiccan. My mother had decided she was a witch.

She gathered women around her for pagan lunches and dinners, and flaunted jewelry with bold symbols hung over her black dresses that would make those who practiced more traditional religions cringe with fear and distaste. Her anger grew outward.

But these times passed, and being a witch turned out to be not all it was chalked up to be, for Kagpha. The pagan celebrations were discarded, and in their place was nothing.

The last Christmas I remember with Kagpha, she said she did not want to cook. She did not want to buy presents. She did not want to do anything, she said – but the undertones in her voice belied the words.

So I made a dinner. A ham, some vegetables – fresh and good. Two desserts. And I brought it to Kagpha and hoped it would make her happy.

It did, but then there was the ham bone to deal with. The ham bone. Kagpha wanted to know if I wanted the ham bone. Why, yes – I said. I’ll take it home with me next time I see you, if that’s okay. I don’t really feel like carrying a ham bone home right now. Could you stick it in the freezer?

Kagpha’s freezer was empty but for two packages of Stouffer’s Welsh Rarebit, so I thought that would be okay.

But the ham bone was not to be forgotten. The ham bone was in her freezer, and it bothered her. The phone calls started coming every few days, then every day, then several times a day.

When are you coming to get the ham bone? Kagpha would ask. The ham bone is in my freezer! she would say, with hints of anger at the edges of her voice. How long do you expect me to keep this here???!!! she would close-to-shriek, over the telephone – the telephone which I now feared to answer.

Gathering my courage to face Kagpha, my mother, my only real mother – I called her. Please throw it away, I said. I don’t want it. Thanks, for the freezer space.

Christmas. It had come down to a ham bone which had somehow transformed into a scapegoat, for Kagpha.

Kagpha’s gift offered was the chance to develop empathy. There is often someone around who may need it.
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Each mother has a Christmas food associated with her. Rida: Sausage Bread. Ada: A dish of rich delicious bitter greens with garlic. Kagpha: Well – nothing will ever erase that ham bone from my memory, that is certain.

I’ve had three mothers at Christmas. I’ve been lucky in that way.

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(This is Part 4 of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)
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Ada had been cooking food for tables filled with people for as long as she could remember. That memory extended back to the small farm in Italy that was said goodbye to while still a child, to emigrate to America.

With six children now grown, Ada looked forward to each Christmas as a time to gather them all back together around in the home they had grown up in – the four brothers in one bedroom, the two sisters in another.

Christmas dinner was somewhat larger than her usual meals. Two or three kinds of meat, a baked pasta, three or four vegetable dishes – but there was no set or insisted-upon format. It was the food she cooked each day, just gathered together in a larger way. The china was not decorated with a Christmas theme,  but the tablecloth was old, linen, and full of memories. It was difficult for everyone to fit around the table, scrunched together on the bench lining one side of the long table, yet they did somehow, often taking turns – one slipping in here or there, another wandering into the kitchen to nibble and talk at the smaller  table there piled with food and spoons and newspapers and clutter.

It was comfortable at Ada’s Christmas dinner. People talked and ate and drank, and they even yelled sometimes to get themselves heard over the others. Laughter rang out and conversation flew as if it were the surrounding air itself. There were angers and resentments in this family, deep ones – but they could wait till later. Right now, they were simply suspended.

Ada, for once, sat down.

Ada never sat down when people were eating. It seemed an impossibility, against the laws of nature. As Mother, she swooped around and fussed and fed and questioned and demanded. But at Christmas she sat down, and it was like a small miracle happening right before one’s eyes,  blinked at in momentary disbelief.

Dinner was the thing on this day. The wrapped Christmas presents were few, small, desultory. And the dinner was all about the table, where everyone would gather.

The same stories were told year after year. Ada held pride of place with the story of her family coming to America on a big boat all together, and of  how soon all of them were working at menial jobs, all seven brothers and sisters – to send the oldest son to college. Then of how when this revered eldest brother  graduated with the degree bought by his siblings labors – he had disappeared from the family without a how-do-ye-do, without the promise of return of favors in any way at all.

And this was true. He had done this. And as he lived far apart from his family, wealthy and well-positioned, his no-longer-young sister remembered him. “It was America”, she would announce, “America”.

“It breaks the family. This never would have happened in Italy!” and everyone would listen and try to understand something for which there really was no understanding.

Ada chose to put the blame on the place, rather than on the person. Was there an answer? All we knew was that this man who was not here was missing out on something – and we looked at Ada’s son whom she had given her brother’s name. And we held it all in our hearts.

Another story of a Christmas long ago, when all six children were school-age was told – sometimes by Ada, more often by one of her children.

Ada had suddenly decided that this year, they would go to Mass on Christmas. Often they didn’t. Time was always short, things were always running late. The family never seemed to make it anywhere on time. Remembering this brought peals of laughter from most of the table.

On this year now long past, they would go to Mass, and not only would they go, Ada decided, they would go in style. People would see what this family was all about!

Ada bought fabric and made space for her sewing machine between the children’s schoolwork and the spoons and the newspapers on the table. And she cut and sewed for some number of days.

On Christmas morning, she insisted everyone be up early. Calling them downstairs, she held out a stack of black bundles. “Here”, she said. And each of the six children, from the littlest four-year old to the eldest fifteen-year old, was given a bundle. “Put these on, quick! And we’ll go.”

Some of her children were mortified. Some of her children were thrilled. What they had to wear to Mass that day, each boy and girl, were six matching black capes and six matching black berets.

Where had that idea entered her head?

The story of Madeleine perhaps? Where children wore capes . . . and where

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines

Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines

In two straight lines they broke their bread

Brushed their teeth

And went to bed

The capes and berets did not bring the children into two straight lines. They remained, as Ada would say (with a look of wonder and sheer motherly pride): “Like spokes on a wheel – all different, each one going a different way.”

My mother Ada’s Christmas gift was not the food. It was not piles of shiny wrapped presents.

Her gift was of a table baited with food, leading those captured right to the brink of some stories, the sort of stories that can (and that must, at times) sustain us.

(To read the final installation of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’ click here)

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(This is Part 3 of ‘The Way of Three Mothers at Christmas’)

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Christmas was no joke to Rida.

What it was, was a hell of a lot of work.

It all began shortly before Thanksgiving and then progressed, as if drawn out on a blueprint.

At least the menu didn’t need planning. The menu for Christmas dinner was set in stone. Rida’s family were accustomed to certain things, and they expected these things to be the same each year.

A few times over the years Rida had tried new recipes, wanting to show a bit of creativity.

As she diced and chopped and stirred she imagined all the faces around the dinner table at Christmas. They would all break into wide smiles of enjoyment and the chatter of discussion would rise merrily about the new dish, as it was passed from hand to hand. The voices were filled with admiration.

When she did try some of these new foods, the grumblings and displeased faces that rose instead of what she had imagined shocked her slightly. But Rida was not by any means a drama queen. She just nodded, with a slightly guilty air. She said “Oh. Okay. I won’t make it again” and the offending New Recipe was moved quietly over to the sideboard, to be discarded at the end of the meal, with a bit of a longing glance from Rida as it went into the kitchen trash bin.

It was Christmas, after all. Her family deserved to be happy.

But still, she thought – there might be something she could make to add to the Christmas dinner table that would spark life into the dinner. It was a good dinner as it was, but always the same.

It never seemed as if everyone were completely comfortable, but this was Christmas dinner. Somebody was usually angry at someone else for some minor reason, and the food did not make this disappear – as much as Rida would have loved it to do so.

The new recipes tried now and then became smaller, more self-effacing. Instead of the extra main course, a vegetable side. Instead of a vegetable side, a relish. Instead of a relish . . . instead of a relish. Nothing, really – instead of a relish.

At other times of the year, the table that would hold the Christmas dinner was just a deserted table, unused, sitting in a room nobody ever entered. The rarely used good linens were stored in the chest, the decorative china received as wedding gifts firmly stuck behind the glass windows on shelves – that sometimes needed dusting – in the big solid piece of matching furniture which sat firmly on the other side of the room.

The view from the window was so pretty in this room. When it snowed, the panorama was just like a painting.

It was perfect.

But the table during the days before Christmas became a workhorse.

The day immediately after Thanksgiving, it sprouted a life of its own. Rolls of wrapping paper, tape, and ribbons grew in neat piles upon it. Boxes and piles of gifts for her family were laid at the other end, and the serious endeavor of preparing dozens of gifts (or maybe hundreds? it seemed there were hundreds of gifts under the tree on Christmas – the unwrapping took all day long) began. The gifts were destined to be stacked into huge piles of colored shiny exuberance under the lit tree in the front room that close-to-hit the ceiling.

The wrapping and be-ribboning and labeling started in between many trips to the mall to buy the gifts, the army of gifts the table held close – all tucked away in the room that nobody went into, till their holiday dinner had begun.

Rida moved quickly at these tasks, for though she was a homemaker, a housewife – without a job or profession in the outside world – her usual tasks remained to be done. The house had to be cleaned and dusted each day. The clothes laundered – her husband’s shirts starched just so, with heavy starch crisply formalizing the edges of cuff and collar into impermeable immovable stiffness.

Dinner had to be on the table (the kitchen table) at 6:30 each evening. Her husband would become upset if it was not. He expected his dinner at 6:30.

And the usual taking-care of the house, little things . . . like making sure nobody ran out of batteries or toothpaste – that had to be kept up with. “Buy two – always have backup” was the rule set by Rida’s husband, for nothing should ever run out . . . and Rida still went to Mass at least twice a week – for that was where God lived. He lived in the church, with the priest named ‘Father’.

Christmas expanded outwards from the workhorse table during the second week of December. It spilled out onto Rida’s kitchen table. The cards draped themselves together, falling sideways, entangled with stamps and envelopes and pens, handwritten notes to be done on each singular one, then the whole to be neatened up and hidden away before dinner preparations were started.

Somehow it all marched forward in an orderly and calm fashion. Everything got done.

Christmas came but once a year.

And at the end of it all, Rida had once more given her family a Christmas to remember.

Her gifts were apparent to all. A perfect Christmas, just as everyone expected!

There was an extra gift hidden within this perfect Christmas. Two gifts, really.

One was the gift to her children and husband.  They knew they could rely on her completely.

The other gift, more hidden in the recesses of things, tucked into the corners of wrapping paper and ribbons, peas and ham – under postage stamps and licked onto the glued flaps of envelopes – was a gift to anyone who wanted to recognize it. It was something to be considered, held, and mulled over – wondering if it was an example to be followed. Or not.

It was the not-small gift of selfless devotion.

That was one Mother’s Christmas, balanced ever-so-discreetly on the head of a pin . . . along with who knows how many angels.

(To read further click on Part Four here)

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I’ve had three mothers at Christmas, in my life.

Like the Three Wise Men, each mother had a different precious gift they carried along to offer. These gifts were not for a child as invested in hope and wonder as the one we think of as being born on Christmas Eve. The gifts they offered were for their own children – imperfect though those children may have been in actuality or in promise.

One mother was my own. One was the mother of the first man I married. And one was the mother of the second man I took a chance on marrying.

Yet they were my mothers, too.

I was lucky in that way.

I’ll tell you about their gifts, the gifts each one offered for this season. Each one was so very different.

This will be a Christmas story. Of some sort.
I wonder if any of you will recognize yourself (or your own mother) in my three mothers.

(To read further, click on Part Two here)

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