My mom sat with her back to the swinging kitchen door. She lit candles every night, or asked us to. She filled our plates with good food, better food than anyone I knew got served.
In elementary school, I was jealous of my friends who got to eat Campbell Soup SpagettiOs for lunch in the summer, or who brought Wonder Bread sandwiches to school. We were allowed no canned anything. No white bread. No Captain Crunch or Lucky Charms. No sodas. No Smucker’s peanut butter striped with grape jelly. No Hostess Twinkies, and certainly no candy.
Before foodie-ism was a thing, my mother bought her ice cream from a gentle man with a magnificent handlebar mustache in the style of Salvador Dali. In my memory, the ice cream man now seems wonderfully, flamboyantly gay. He always welcomed us warmly to his little shop on Grand Avenue in Oakland, across the street from the old Lucky’s. A pink and blue, rounded neon sign proclaiming “Best Ice Cream” hung a little crooked from a thin chain in the window.
And it was the best. Soft, creamy ice cream that melted rapidly at the edges and was not overly sweet. The bittersweet chocolate was black and dense, the coffee aromatic and intoxicating. The rum raisin was chock full of swollen raisins that popped when you bit them like the grapes they once were. That was my dad’s favorite.
Mom sought out the creators and purveyors of real food long before that was considered necessary or meaningful. She bought soft wheat bread so fresh it was damp in the middle from health food stores tucked into alleys and side streets and peanut butter made from peanuts and salt (radical in the day).
She was a fan of Julia Child and owned several of her books. She made just about everything from scratch and rarely cooked the same dish twice. Our dinner plates were laden nightly with pork chops and chunky homemade applesauce, lamb chops with mint from our garden, steak in a red wine glaze, watercress salads with radish and avocado and of course a home-made dressing that I use today and that never fails to wow.
She’d make stroganoff, beef Bourguignon, buttered noodles, cheese fondue, soups served in carved-out pumpkins. She liked international cooking too, and mind you, this was in the early 70s. No one I knew was served Japanese soups with raw eggs stirred in, spicy tandoori chicken, tabouleh, or jellied beef consomme.
Chicken curry was the one dish she made regularly, and it was a sight to behold. Mom was partial to Craig Claiborne’s recipe — a relatively simple affair. But the condiments! They were something. She’d fill wooden bowls (used only for curry nights) with every condiment imaginable: chopped, hard-boiled eggs, green onions, currants, sliced bananas, chutneys, peanuts, chopped cilantro, shredded coconut, pineapple, pine nuts. Anything fun and fanciful would do.
We’d heap our special wooden curry plates full of fragrant white rice and yellow curry and then painstakingly fill each of the ten or so divets that ran along the side of the tray. Each condiment had its own home on our trays.
Then, once when she had her four kids captive at the table, mom would begin to recount her glory days. She’d drink — in those days it was wine, red or white — and drone on about how she was a famous journalist, “youngest society editor in the nation,” top-of-her-class at the convent, full scholarship recipient, lauded Stanford graduate, captain of the women’s basketball team, yada yada. She’d describe her medals, trophies, accolades, and achievements ad nauseam.
Then she’d look at us acidly and remark that we weren’t amounting to very much, were we? She’d ask us each in turn what was wrong with us. How did we turn out this way? She tended to say things like, “I rue the day you were born.” Although I didn’t know the verb “rue,” the meaning was not lost on me. We were a disappointment, all of us. We were hapless, stupid, untalented, and irresponsible. We were an embarrassment.
My dad, a merchant marine, was shipping in those days and gone for months at a time. We weren’t allowed to leave the table until she was done with us. My sister Kerry, a picky eater, had to stay until she cleaned her plate. She couldn’t, and wound up imprisoned for hours, until mom passed out or got sick of the game.
Years later, my dad again at sea and my brother and I long out of the house, I stopped by around dinner time. I think I needed something from the house. My sisters were still technically denizens of the place. I approached carefully and looked in the window to see if the coast was clear.
Mom was sitting at the head of the dining room table with her back to the swinging kitchen door, as always. As always, the table was set and laden with food, probably damn fine food too. She was alone. She called, “Din-din!” I could tell from her tone that this wasn’t the first time she’d announced dinner. Her voice was heavily slurred.
I kept watching. I couldn’t tear myself away. No one responded, no one arrived. Most likely, no one was home. My sisters were long accustomed to scattering by this time of day. We generally slunk in after nightfall when we were fairly sure we could slip in without her notice.
Sometimes, this was impossible, however. She’d position herself on the small blue love seat with a view on the front door and wait. If she hadn’t passed out completely, she’d rouse herself when she heard the door, and then she’d start in. She’d lumber to her feet and follow her victim around, castigating them for one thing or another. It didn’t matter what. If her words didn’t cause a reaction, she’d go deeper, get more ruthless, more mean, more shocking, more aggressive.
Or, she’d try to herd us to school at zany times. She’d follow and harangue us until we got dressed for school and left with our backpacks. Mind you, this could be any hour that she might mis-take for getting-ready-for-school-time. 6, 7, or 8 p.m. We’d have to “leave for school” with our backpacks on just as the crickets were starting up, and then find some way back into the house if we wanted to sleep in our beds that night.
Which is probably why my sisters slept with me in my single bed in the basement in those days, farther away from the chaos. She didn’t come downstairs all that much. Maybe the stairs were too dark or narrow for her condition. Maybe she was afraid of me by that time. Maybe we were just out of sight and therefore out of mind. Whatever it was, my tiny maid’s room in the basement was the safest place in the house, and both my sisters agreed.
That was always the safe room, come to think of it. It’s also where I went when I was 8 and 9, to visit our maid Dorothy Goodjoint, who kept the room sweltering with a little electric space heater.
Dorothy was from Louisiana. Her room was filled with the strong scent of perfume and cigarettes. She was 27 years old and statuesque. She left naked pictures of herself on the corners of her dresser, and I knew even at that age that she had a beautiful body. She wore a blue bandana over her hair and favored tight jeans and sweaters. She had a big laugh, and she let me sleep on the floor of her room whenever I wanted, and I wanted, often.
So, of course there was no one at the table. I watched mom through the dining room window for a while, shielded by a screen of bamboo. She looked around from time to time. She got to her feet again and called up the stairs, more feebly this time.
Then, she returned to her chair and brought her clasped hands up to her face. Her shoulders shook. This was also typical — the stage of the drinking my dad called the “crying jag.” I’d seen plenty of them.
This time, though, I was moved. The sight of her alone, crumpled, before all those plates, was almost too much. I briefly considered entering. Then, I thought better of it.