Tuesday, February 27, 2018: 6-9 p.m.
My year as a Writers’ Room of Boston Finalist has been memorable. Please join me–and the other Finalist and Fellows–to celebrate it at the Writers’ Room of Boston, located on the 5th floor of 111 State Street, just blocks from the State Street stop on the Orange Line. I’ll read a short essay I wrote in the Room. The 2018 Fellows will be announced.
Here’s “Strawberry Rhubarb,” the unpublished essay I read at the event.
Strawberries are a sought-after fruit, the berry of the ball, just like some dads. My neighbor Mr. Duane was a strawberry dad. He had a booming voice and a Great Dane named Ziggy that galloped by his side like a dappled pony. On his farm, situated at the back of our suburban neighborhood, Mr. Duane fed his pigs day-old Dunkin’ Donuts. Every summer he threw a block party next to his strawberry patch.
Each time I visited Mr. Duane would bend over the wood and chicken wire fence of his patch and pluck a berry for me. As I ate it, I liked to pretend I was his daughter, even though he already had one named Jenny, along with a handsome son I wouldn’t notice until a few years later.
The opposite of the summery strawberry is rhubarb, a vegetable stalk that looks as red and alien as Mars. Rhubarb is celery that gave up trying to be normal. When you cut it, its insides are slimy, like okra. It comes fussily into the season from May through July only.
While everyone partied at Mr. Duane’s, my rhubarb dad stayed home. While I sang “Old McDonald” with my friend Anne onstage, my dad was probably up in his room, watching TV with his earbuds in.
Rhubarb doesn’t do well alone, and neither did my father. He had no people skills so I know he would have died without the five of us. A little-known fact: rhubarb leaves are poisonous, like my depressed and bellicose dad. Another fact: he ruined my childhood waving guns around and planted trauma in a place in my brain that reason can’t touch. My love for my father was indestructible and persistent like a stubborn stalk of rhubarb that nobody knows what to do with except make a strawberry rhubarb pie out of it. My life’s sweet moments are inseparable from the bitterness of the trauma my dad sowed. It returns in waves of hot sweats, on shaky legs. It feels like my body is separating into thousands of pieces.
Rhubarb needs to pair with something sweet to bring out its woody flavor, and if anyone needed a measure of daughterly sugar and spice, my dad did. So I made him a strawberry rhubarb pie for his 74th birthday. We both had summer birthdays, so I suppose we were both a little bit like rhubarb, blooming in late June. I stewed the stems in sugar and then mixed them with bright Mr. Duane-like strawberries, the all-stars of every fruit salad.
My dad savored not only the unpopular perennial but also the foods and food combinations nobody else in our household liked. On weekend mornings, while we had cereal, he spooned thick helpings of sticky orange marmalade, bits of peel suspended within its amber, onto his mound of yellow scrambled eggs.
Only now, six years after his death, am I struck by the way that even my father’s sustenance was solitary, how eating at a table with a wife, two sons and two daughters, he was alone.
He preferred the cranberry sauce my mother made each Thanksgiving to the smooth carmine jelly that we children loved. When I opened the can and turned it upside down, the soft cylinder emerged with a sucking sound before, marked with the can’s rings, it plopped into the bowl beneath it. My mother made a thinner sauce that had whole berries in it, lumps that popped on the tongue. The sauce, which she stirred on the stove with sugar to tame the berries’ tartness, we labeled, “Dangerous,” so guests understood their choice.
My father even liked mincemeat pie, its ingredients still firmly a mystery to me, the filling recalled only as a muddy brown. We children waited impatiently for lemon meringue, topped with peaked waves; dense, chocolaty Boston cream, found after plumbing fluffy white, and apple, emanating the warm glow of cinnamon, and the scent of the fruit our family picked at Honey Pot Hill Orchards.
The photo of us snapped in my sister’s backyard the day of our party is strawberry sweet. I passed the pie to him, its ruby filling percolating from between a golden lattice of crust. My short, thick hands held one side of the Pyrex pie dish, and his square fingers, deeply tanned, held the other. He took a bite of the pie. For once, his mood was the perfect balance of sweet and sour. He smiled his halting smile.
Five months later I had a daughter, and my father had a progressive lung disease. But that day, our cheeks puffed out as we blew out our candles with all the breath we still had. My growing stomach pressed the edge of the glass patio table my sister had set, and though they weren’t visible in the photo taken that afternoon, squiggles of red burst capillaries swam around my father’s nose.
Less than a year later, he was eating new things I wasn’t ready for; he swallowed one morphine capsule after another. To make them go down more easily, I pictured them as if they contained golden honey–as if they were filled with the syrup of forgetting.
The last time I saw him, I brought him his supper, balancing with it a ruby glass of wine. I climbed the stairs of my childhood home to his office on the second floor, which was once my bedroom. I remember he smiled when I placed his food in front of him, where he sat, his slender oxygen tank leaning next to him like a friend. All my life I had subsisted on our scraps of connection, but I still hoped childlike for a feast.
A year after I made him the pie, he died, but I kept looking for him. One sunny summer afternoon I went to Simco’s on Blue Hill Avenue, where he took my mother on dates in the 1960s.
I bought a foot-long hotdog and bit into it, my teeth piercing its armor of skin, mustard, onions and relish sweet, hot and sorrowful at once. A white bun grilled in butter and scarred with black hash marks cradled the dog.
At Simco’s, I saw the ghost of my father, rangy and angular, lift a cup of cocoa. He laughed with my young mother, and I watched them devour foot-long hot dogs, hungry after a date spent skating at Larz Anderson’s rink nearby.
I imagine the stacked pink neon letters of the cone-shaped sign shone that winter night brightly. Perhaps my father dared to take my mother’s hand as she bit into the crisp skin of a foot-long, licked the whipped cream off the top of her rich cocoa. So young, they couldn’t yet imagine a future as strange and bitter as rhubarb.
Thursday, May 11, 2017
Have some kibby and listen to me read an excerpt from To Have and To Hoard, my memoir in progress. Doors at 6:15 p.m. Reading begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub’s Corner, 472 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. My 7 fellow Incubees from GrubStreet’s 2017 Memoir Incubator will also be reading from their stunning work. See you there!
December 16, 2015
Enjoy wine and cheese at 5:30 p.m. Listen to me read an excerpt from To Have and To Hoard, my memoir in progress, at 7 p.m.