Friday, April 29, 2011

Fish On Friday

A repost: part five of my Nana stories.
Originally published December 2009, which will explain a few things.
- Cricket

For five years I lived a block away from my grandparent's "city house." Though, in hindsight, I'm sure it was a mixed blessing for my parents, it was nothing but wonderful for me. It is all too rare these days for a child to be able to visit his grandparents more or less at will. It is a life-changing experience; an education that cannot be gained any other way.

My memory of that house is forever colored by magic. Though it was a fairly typical Victorian, compared to our apartment, it seemed huge. Its double-lot was perfect for tag or baseball. An ancient pear tree stood sentry beside the garage, guarding the remains of my uncle's 1932 Ford coupe. The woods behind were always ready for childhood adventures. Seamus, the elderly Scottie next door, provided hours of live entertainment.

Inside was even better. The house was full of treasures. Of course, only a child could conjure the spirits hidden in them. A wooden-handled chisel polished smooth by my young grandfather's hand. A pillbox hat worn to Midnight Mass in 1953. A cap gun last played with by my father thirty years before. Three green glass cookie jars that never emptied. The spirits awaited my touch like the genie of the lamp.

Under the watchful eyes of Jesus, Mary, and JFK, these ghosts preserved the house and its memories. I often spent the night and, if the mood was right, I could almost see them as I went upstairs to bed: my aunt doing homework lying on her bed, my uncle quietly building a model airplane, my father hanging a gunbelt and cowboy hat on his bedpost. As I drifted off to the murmuring television and the percolator, I wondered if I would awake to find my grandparents thirty years younger.


My grandparents were quietly devout, in the Irish-Catholic way. My grandfather bore the mark of the Jesuits and would happily defend the faith. My grandmother kept her own counsel. Though she, too, professed to believe all the Catechism contained, her views were not open for discussion. I knew she was far too intelligent to have given the matter no thought. I also knew that those thoughts would never be shared. They never were.

Keeping the faith was as much a matter of tradition as devotion. To my delight, one tradition my grandparents kept was serving fish on Fridays. My mother was a fine cook, back when she still used ingredients. Unfortunately, my sisters were not fine eaters and one thing they hated was fish. Hated. Fish. For the sake of her own sanity, my mother rarely served it.

Now I loved fish. I was an adventurous child who would try anything. This would later be a problem when I became an adventurous teen who would try anything. Still, I loved fish, so I made it my own tradition to join my grandparents for a fish dinner every Friday. They were happy to oblige me. My grandmother loved to cook, but she loved cooking for an appreciative audience even more.

If I could, I would share her recipes. The problem is there are no recipes. She did not cook that way. To her, cooking was a game, a challenge, an art. Fortunately, she taught me the rules of the game. In short, they are these:

1) The meal must make use of what is on sale and in season.

2) The meal must taste good and be easy to prepare.

3) The meal must appear to be much more work than it really was.

Of course, she broke these rules herself as often as not. She would slave away at a dish if she thought the end result worthwhile, or if she was inspired, or if she was just so bored with what she had been making she was desperate for change. Still, as rules go, they are good ones. Since it is Friday, and if you have no better ideas, should you wish to recreate one of these wonderful meals, a rough guide follows.


First, you begin with your supermarket circular. This is the hardest part of the game. Find the least expensive fish. This week in my area, it is tilapia fillets at $3.99/lb. So I will be making that. Since it is December, fresh vegetables are not plentiful. Butternut squash or carrots might be an option. However, in my grandfather's memory, I will be baking potatoes. For me, that rules out squash, as I don't want two relatively mushy items. Carrots might be better, especially if you have a child or grandchild to julienne them for you. If not, you could just slice them according to your fashion. So, our menu: broiled tilapia, baked potato, carrots.

To channel my grandmother's spirit, take a couple of tablespoons of mayonnaise and marinate the fish fillets in it for an hour or so. Don't worry about the fat. It will all cook off as you broil it. You might also flavor the mayonnaise, perhaps with lemon juice, or some lemon pepper, or a bit of curry. I'm going to go with the curry, myself. Set the fish aside, refrigerated.

Now my grandmother firmly believed that dessert is something you buy. Still, every now and then, when she wanted to show her heart was truly in a meal, she would make one. Here is a Nana-approved dessert. It is delicious, and only slightly more difficult than making a ham-and-cheese sandwich.

Mash up two 8 oz. bars of cream cheese in a large bowl. Take two boxes of Jell-O, perhaps lemon or orange, I'll use lemon. Dissolve them in 2 cups of boiling water. Mix that with the cream cheese. Now you pour the mixture into a pre-baked pie shell, or a graham cracker crust, or into cups for that matter, and put it in the refrigerator to set, an hour or two should do. Since I will be making lemon pie, I will serve it with a sprig of mint and some whipped cream.

Set the potatoes in to bake, about an hour at 350, or just microwave them, if that's more your style. Julienne the carrots and cook them in as little water as possible, covered, about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat. While the carrots cook, put your fish under the broiler, perhaps 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness. Keep an eye on it and don't overcook. Let your plates warm on the back of the stove if you can.

When everything is done, strain the carrots and toss with a little butter. Plate your fish, carrots and potato. Sprinkle a little chopped fresh parsley on the fish and put a lemon slice alongside. Serve with sour cream, butter, and chive for the potato, and some Pepperidge Farm or Arnold's white bread. Don't forget to say grace. Have some pie while the coffee brews. Have some coffee and relax at the table. Wash the dishes together or leave them for the morning. Enjoy each other's company.

Repeat each Friday. You never know how many there will be.

Respectfully Yours,


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Life Lessons

A repost: part four of my Nana stories. - Cricket

There are two reasons I teach: July and August.

My grandmother was a teacher by trade, if not always by disposition. Patience was not a virtue with which either of us was abundantly blessed. Her interests leaned toward art and literature. Yet she spent most of her career teaching math: class after class of basic algebra, taught to rooms full of street toughs who should have long before learned the material.

I do not know why she chose teaching as a profession. I imagine she saw in it security and stability. She was a career woman long before that was common. I think she found in teaching both a feeling of independence and an insulation against a poverty to which she never wanted to return.

She was quite strict. She would fail you as soon as look at you. Yet she was surprisingly popular with her students. Regardless of whether she loved her job, she loved them. She saw in them: there, but for the grace of God. They sensed that she knew more than she would say. Though it was unspoken, though it was many years ago, she had been there and they knew it. Even if they did not love her in return, she commanded their respect.


I sit at my kitchen table, staring at my algebra homework. Nana sits beside me. Her impatience is almost tangible. Haltingly, I answer the first question. I look up. Her eyes say it all.


Try again.

I stare again at the equation. Too long.

Give me that.

She fills in the correct answer. This is no gift. This is escalation. Nana is no-nonsense. I will learn how to factor a quadratic equation. I will learn right now or risk her displeasure.

You see, now? Try again.

I stare at question two. A synapse fires. I write my answer and look up. She nods.

You see? It's easy. Finish these and I'll check them. Ten minutes.


My father is also a math teacher, but of a different stripe. My father loves numbers. He makes them dance across the page. He sees beauty in an elegant proof. He helped with homework only if asked. Even then, he would answer the specific question, nothing more. He wants you to see. He wants you to understand. He wants you to love numbers as he does.

My grandmother was all business. You will do this work. You will do it now and you will do it correctly. Understanding is nice but not necessary. Love it or hate it, that's fine. This is how the problem is done. Now do it.


Whenever I'm having a bad day, I look at my students and picture each one of them as a little dollar sign.

None of this is to say that my grandmother was not a good teacher. Quite probably she was. She had an aversion to doing anything halfway. She also taught at a time when an algebra teacher was expected to do just that: teach algebra, not to entertain her students or boost their self-esteem. If her students left her knowing more than they did before, she considered her work done. Still, teaching is my father's true calling. For my grandmother, it was only her job.

I do not know what her ideal career would have been. She was not interested in "what if," especially if the question applied to her. She had many talents. She wrote well. When her hands still permitted, she was quite artistic. She could, and occasionally would, sing in a fine contralto. She could have done any number of things. Given the decidedly progressive way she lived her life, it is ironic that her true place was in the kitchen. That was the classroom she chose for my education.

There was nothing simple about my grandmother. She did not set out to teach me to cook. I was merely acting as her hands. Even so, we had our best conversations in the kitchen. There, she was most at home and most herself. Over time, I realized that she was sharing more than her method of cooking. She was sharing her philosophy of life.

Sometimes you have the best, sometimes you have only scraps. It is important to know what to do with both. Waste nothing if you can avoid it. Presentation is everything; even plain broiled fish tastes better if you serve it with parsley and a lemon slice. Most folks think the meat is tender if the knife is sharp. Keep people out of your kitchen. What the eye doesn't see, the cook gets away with. Know when fruits are ripe. Everything has its season. More expensive is not always better. Simple is usually best. It is amazing what you can do with salt, pepper and good olive oil. Always say grace. The best cooking can only be done with love.

She gave me all this and more. There are no recipes. She almost never used them. There is no recipe for living. You do the best you can with what you have and as much love as you can find. That is the lesson of life.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, April 25, 2011

Dream House

A repost: part three of my Nana stories. - Cricket

To your right, three enormous catalpa trees shade the driveway. A bayberry towers over you on the left. A sandy path winds through the grass to the door. The gentle breeze bears the scents of scrub-pine and salt marsh. A wood thrush begins its peculiar song. Day-lilies glow against the weathered shingles. Approach the door. Notice the mat on the step before you: Go Away. Open the door and enter. A tiny wind chime jingles as the screen door bangs shut behind you. Look around. Come see my dream house.

Its main frame was raised sometime during the Madison administration. Sturdy timbers neatly joined, held in place by wooden pegs that my grandfather would tap back in now and then. They creaked reassuringly at night like a safely moored ship. Its pine-wood planking is unthinkably wide. Follow the progress of the knots across both roof and floors and know that these planks were cut from a single massive tree, when such trees were still to be found here. A thick central chimney firmly anchors the house to earth.

Once this was a simple Cape. Perhaps a flintlock hung over the main fireplace. Over the years it has been extended again and again. Now, it sprawls along one side of its double-lot. It is big, but it somehow seems even bigger from the inside, like something from Alice's wonderland. No right angles or plumb lines here. It is not poor craftsmanship, though. Just time, lots of time, and the ever-shifting soil of Cape Cod.

Every doorway is hung with a thin wooden "Christian door". Each door has two small glass panes at the top of the cross and a black iron latch. No doorknobs here. The bedrooms are tiny. Just big enough for a bed and, perhaps, a desk or chest. A few closets seem to have been added as an afterthought. Not so. Many old Capes are like this. Once, closets were taxed as extra rooms.

See the never-used front dining room. Year-round, it stood ready for the formal dinners that were never held here. Pewter chargers and china arranged in neat rows on the hutch. Three pristine birch logs on the fire-grate. A marble-topped side table with a Tiffany lamp. Eight caned ladderback chairs around a drop-leaf table. No ghosts linger in this museum. A spiral staircase beckons you up.

On a table to your right, an antique dollhouse sits before a lace-curtained window. Through an open doorway, you see a white iron hospital bed under the bare rafters. The ghost of a little boy peers through a tiny window overlooking the yard. A brass frame on the night-stand holds an illuminated quotation:

God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. - Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 1.

Long ago, this was my room. The quotation was placed there by my grandfather. It was the first thing I saw in the morning; the last thing I saw at night. I still have it but I no longer need it. It is written on my heart.

All around there is wood, some bare, some painted white. Thin wooden walls, thin wooden doors. From the bed you can look up and see the rafters, the roof above, in some places the shingles. Somehow it does not leak. When the rains come the room resonates like a drum, but it is dry, if not always warm. This part of the house is unheated, but it seems like enough.

In the next room the ceiling and rafters are finished: a white wooden ceiling and finished beams. A four-poster bed with a nubbly cotton spread. Another tiny window. The windows here are the oldest. They have no mechanisms. You open one and place a stick in it. More modern windows have buttons that pop out at varying heights. Windows more modern still have levers that turn down. Only a few of the newest windows have pulleys and weights. No double-glazing here. It seems like enough.

A hallway leads through another bedroom, the attic proper, and still another bedroom. Stairs lead down to the old kitchen. Everywhere it seems there is another window. You breathe clean salt air in white Cape light. The old kitchen is white wood and blue glass. Braided rugs and wide pine floors. A pot-belly stove. Copper pans hang above the sink. More windows look out on the sun-porch.

The sun-porch smiles at its own little joke. It is nailed right on to the side of the house. Step down into it and turn around. There is the old front door, the doorbell, the mail-slot, the stairs. Three windows look out from the old clapboards left intact. Seven windows with bamboo shades surround you with light. To the left, my grandfather's favorite chair. To the right, my grandmother's writing desk. Built-in bookshelves invite you to browse. Sofas and chairs invite you to stay. Friendly ghosts linger here. This is where their voices echo.

At the very back stands the work kitchen. Another add-on, Southern-style, to keep the heat out in summer. An ancient Hotpoint stove. An elderly Frigidaire. A small but sufficient countertop. Two wooden stools. The ghosts of a woman and a little boy watch from the corner. A single French door leads to the old kitchen. Cookware hangs from the rafters. A wind chime tinkles in the breeze. The screen door looks out at the barn. No stainless steel appliances here, no granite counters. Somehow it still seems like enough. This tiny kitchen was once my grandmother's alone. In time, it became ours. Just one voice echoes here.

Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


I dislike home-improvement shows. Something about them saddens me. It is always more, more, more. Stainless steel appliances and black granite counters, Andersen windows and energy efficiency, houses with more bathrooms than bedrooms, Sub-Zero and Jenn-Air and all the rest. If you like that sort of thing, that's fine. I don't hold it against you. I just don't see the point, myself.

My dream house had a single, tiny bathroom with a cast-iron tub, a tiny kitchen with old-but-working appliances. Tiny bedrooms and no closet space. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Its only concessions to modern living were gas, electricity, and running water. The house is still there. It looks like it has been thoroughly modernized. Honestly, the new owners did a nice job. It's still a beautiful house, but I could never live there.

Only in my dreams.

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, April 22, 2011

Endless Summer

A repost: part two of my Nana stories. - Cricket

My grandmother lives in endless summer. She is the sea in its many moods. Sunlight-scattered sparkling. July blue. Calm and green. Gray and forbidding. The hissing sibilance of the water's edge.

She is a salt-marsh in morning fog. A half-hidden heron in the reeds. The solitary cry of a gull. She is a fiery sunset over Cape Cod Bay. Wind-blown whitecaps. Crashing green breakers along the Great Beach.

She is the old Cape. A poverty of living and a richness of life. A weathered shingle cottage along a twin-rutted road. Scrub-pine and bayberry. Ever-shifting dunes tenuously bound by seagrass. The evening glow of a driftwood fire. The deep Atlantic darkness of the night-watch.

Yet there was nothing simple about her. She was also trolley bells and tangled traffic. The old downtown all dressed up for Christmas. Smartly-tailored skirts and prim fashion. Nickel matinees and Clark Gable at the Rialto. The life of the party and Benny Goodman at the Roseland. Movietone News and black market sugar.

All of this and more besides.

Whatever I say will be inadequate. I cannot tell the truth about my grandmother because I do not know it. She always kept part of herself to herself. She was a city girl who longed for the solitude of the Cape, back when solitude could still be found there. That was where she was most at home. That was where she was most herself. She will not submit to words, but if I stand alone at the edge of the earth and listen to the churning surf, sometimes I can feel her spirit. That will forever have to be enough. I loved her and she loved me. That is my truth.


My earliest memories of her are not really memories at all, but images. A collage of family photographs, home movies, stories told and retold. Silently, they shift and flicker, in distorted color and flashes of light, until I am unsure whether I remember the event or only the Super-8.

A shaky zoom shows my fresh-minted face. I am baby-blond and red Dr. Denton's. My mother is Ivory soap and baby's first Christmas. My grandparents so nimble the film seems sped-up. Nana claps her hands in delight, laughing. The camera pans to me too late. We are all smiles, then suddenly black. Were we all ever really this young?

She stands before her rambling Cape. I toddle across the sand-speckled lawn. With surprising speed she scoops me up. We sit in a cane-backed rocker. The MS has not yet taken her left side. She is vitality and a lime-green sundress. We squint in the too-bright August sun. She bends her head close to mine, sharing a secret. I clap my hands in delight, laughing. We are all smiles, then suddenly black. What did she say to me?


We sit at the counter stools in her kitchen. My feet do not quite touch the floor. The ancient Hotpoint hisses reassuringly. A teakettle gurgles a whispering hint of a whistle.

Always put water on to boil when you start cooking, Christopher. Remember that. You'll probably need it. And if you don't, you can always make yourself a nice cup of tea later. All right? Good boy. Dice these vegetables for me, will you? Do you remember what we call this?

Um... mirepoix?

Good boy. Mirepoix. Let's see if you've been paying attention, hm? Ready? Here's an easy one. Amandine?






Lyonnaise? No? Onions, Christopher. Onions. Remember that. All right? Good boy. Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


I cannot tell the truth about my grandmother because I do not know it. Though I was as close to her as she ever allowed anyone to get, she shared with me only what she chose. That was who she was. Yet I like to think that she gave me herself as best she could. That will forever have to be enough. She loved me from the beginning. I loved her until the end. We loved each other as we were and that is enough. That is my truth.

Respectfully Yours,


Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I had originally intended to tell the story of my grandmother and me straight through. In hindsight, I shouldn't have been surprised to find the ending much harder to write than the beginning. Since most of you were not here when I began the story, I would like to tell it again in its proper order, such as it is. And so, I beg your leave, over the next several posts, to do just that. Thank you in advance for your patience. - Cricket

In dreamlight my grandmother walks the tide-line. Auburn hair loosely tied back. A bathing suit that would once have been considered revealing. Perhaps she is nearing thirty. A gentle wave laps at her ankles. One foot slowly sinks in the sand. With a violent kick she scatters a rainbow-shower of droplets. She faces the sea. She speaks without turning. You see, child? This is how I really am.

She stands in sepia-tone. Two enormous bloodhounds sprawl at her bare feet. She is Shirley Temple curls and overalls. She is defiance and serious brown eyes. She cradles an Iver Johnson 12-gauge almost too large for her four year-old arms. The gun is real. The barrel locked. The photograph does not seem posed.

A hot white flash. The acrid tang of magnesium and sulfur. Eddie Cantor crackles from a burl-wood Philco. Her neck and shoulders sweep gracefully beneath a low-backed dress. Her hair sweeps up in premature elegance. Her teeth just visible behind a Gibson girl smile. Her skin is smooth and white. Her serious brown eyes sparkle. Depression be damned. I will be beautiful.

I pause. Something is not right. An almost imperceptible pencil mark reveals itself. She has given her nose a more fashionable slant. I hesitate, then extract an art-gum from my desk and gently remove it. Better. I love her more the way she is.

Valedictorian. Class of 1932. She stares me down from the yellowing high school yearbook. Her smile is tight. Her eyes are fixed. She is defiance and intelligent purpose. I am not like these others. I will be somebody. I am somebody. Depression be damned.


St. Edward's Parish, 1938. The pancake supper is underway. The church hall is bustle and clatter. The air heavy with butter and maple. The Aunt Jemima man is cornered. She is hands-on-hips. He will not escape.

Why don't my pancakes come out like this?

Excuse me, ma'am?

These pancakes are better than mine. I want to know why. And don't call me ma'am.

Oh. Yes, miss. Well, when we put on these here suppers we don't use the milk and eggs, see? We just use water and oil. That's the thing. Water and oil. Comes out just as good.

No, it comes out better. Cheaper, too. I knew they were different.

She turns away satisfied, murmuring thanks, setting her quarry free.


No, no, not like that, Christopher. Fold the egg whites in gently, like this.

She makes a quick stroke with the whisk. To my grandmother I am always Christopher, even if I am not in trouble.

That's it. Gently, or you'll let the air out. And always room-temperature eggs. Remember that. Room-temperature eggs with a pinch of salt. Always just a pinch of salt. All right? Good boy. That's enough now. Pour the batter in this pan for me, will you? Then go check the oven. 350. No more, no less. Don't ever trust the oven, now. Always use a thermometer. Remember that. Always a thermometer and a level measure when you're baking. All right? Good boy. Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


Somewhere around here the story begins for me. My grandmother loved me and I loved her. In a different life, we could have been friends. Never lovers; we were both far too volatile for that, but the kind of friends who hold hands and give the world a good Bronx cheer. My grandmother was difficult. Often prickly. Frankly, she was moody as hell. Just like me. We were kindred souls.

My grandfather had an infinite patience with which I was not blessed. He balanced my grandmother in ways I never could. He loved her in ways I cannot imagine. He was Augustus to her Livia. I was merely Archy to her Mehitabel.

My grandfather taught me many things, but one stands above the others. He taught me how to love my grandmother. To appreciate her spirit and to forgive her faults. When to give a soft answer and when to stand firm. He taught me how to accept her for who she was. When he died, he left me no money or property, but he left me what mattered most to him.

He left me her.

Respectfully Yours,