Saturday, December 26, 2015

No Place Like Home for the Holidays

Christmas Day, 2015

I’m alone in my house, the laundry is sorted, and Love, Actually is on the tv. My kids have gone to their dad’s for the afternoon, Dan has gone to a movie with his sons Dave and Sam, and I’m kicked back in the new La-z-boy recliner.

Since moving to California in 2004, every year I have lamented the distance between my family and me. We had spent every holiday together for my whole life to that point: 42 years of them. Mom and Dad, my three siblings and the spouses and kids that followed used to celebrate together; suddenly, it was just me and my husband and our three kids out west. We didn’t even make it to our second Christmas in California. We separated a little more than a year after moving here and subsequently divorced.

Even after I remarried and gained two wonderful stepsons, I was still sad at the holidays. But time and distance, along with the cost of airfare, chipped away at my memories. Eventually I gave up my hopes for a big holiday reunion. I will always love my family, but it just wasn’t going to happen.

There’s this great word I learned this year: hiraeth. It’s Welsh and means “a deep, wistful, nostalgic sense of longing for home; a home that is no longer or perhaps never was. A yearning and wistful grief for people and things long gone.” I was stricken by its perfect definition of the things I was feeling.

Maybe it was the knowledge that my sorrow had an actual word, which meant that countless others had felt it too, which led to this year’s epiphany. Sam, a chef, had moved to Portland. Charlie was away at college. As I decorated my house for Christmas, which I really do, something occurred to me. Like the Grinch, it started in low… then it started to grow. Maybe Christmas, I thought, wasn’t about the family of my old life; maybe it was now going to be about my new family. I realized that my house, the one I deck out in lights and Santas and nutcrackers, would be the one that family came home to.

This Christmas Eve, it all came together. Dave, his lovely girlfriend, and their charming, well-behaved dog were there. Dave and Sam’s aunt, cousin and grandmother on their mom’s side even came. The house was filled with the smell of Sam’s cooking (pork shoulder!) and the sounds of laughter and animated conversation. Wine was flowing, cookies were devoured – and I was completely and totally happy.

This morning we tore through our presents. Now that my kids are older, they take more pride in choosing the right gifts for their loved ones, which made everything sweeter. And then things started to wind down, as they always do. I took a nap. Everyone else left for a bit, and I sat down to write.

Last Sunday, when Sam walked in the door after Dan had picked him up from LAX, he stopped for a moment, taking in the twinkling lights on the tree, the stockings on the mantel, the Santas on every surface. “Whoa,” he said. “I forgot how much you do Christmas!”

And now, it’s clear that I have an even better reason to do Christmas: my family is coming home.

Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Folding T-Shirts

“Just as I suspected,” says Jim the appliance repairman. “It’s the pump. I have to order the part, but we can probably get this all done by Wednesday.” That’s almost a week. At least there is a weekend in between to go to the Laundromat.
On Saturday I’ve carved out the whole morning to eat the frog. If it's your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning, said Mark Twain. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first. Laundry for five people is a pretty big frog. I take my time sorting out the loads; it seems like every piece of clothing the girls own is in their hamper, and my husband’s contribution is mainly socks, underwear and the pricey no-iron permanent press dress shirts I always give him for Christmas. Ironing dress shirts is not a frog I am willing to eat.
Knocking on his door first, as always, I peek into my son’s room and ask him for his dirty laundry. He is sitting at his computer, as always, and he pulls the earbud from one ear to hear me repeat my request. He jerks his head towards the hamper. I notice that he is online filling out housing information for college. He just got accepted a week ago, but it was his number one choice and he is eager to get started. The usually cool and nonchalant teen sees the light at the end of the tunnel. I pick up his hamper. “See you in a couple hours.” He nods without changing his gaze.
At the last minute I decide to bring a couple of the sleeping bags that need washing too. Loading up the car, I mentally check off everything: detergent, reading material, a sandwich for lunch, a water bottle, and cash for the change machine.
            Dan grabs his keys as I get ready to take the last hamper out to the car. “I’m off to have lunch with Dave,” he says. Dave is his oldest, my stepson. “I’m off to the Laundromat,” I say, “which means you have to be really nice to me for the rest of the day.” He smiles and kisses me and carries the hamper to the car.
            Wishy-Washy is a pretty nice joint for a Laundromat. Lots of vending machines filled with laundry supplies, soda, snacks – there’s even a coffee machine. I wonder what a Laundromat cappuccino would taste like but decide not to find out. As I haul the hampers inside, four other cars pull into the parking lot. Saturday is laundry day for a lot of people, I think, heading to the change machine where my twenty dollar bill is turned into eighty quarters, which promptly make the front pocket of my jeans look like the nut-filled cheek of a greedy squirrel.
            There is a rhythm to Laundromat laundry. I like to use liquid detergent so after eight washers are stuffed with clothes I move down the line, sliding in the quarters. Water fills the machines and then I move down the line again, pouring the liquid detergent into the water. There is time to eat lunch and flip through an old copy of Entertainment Weekly before the wash is done. Then back down the line again, one two three four, putting the wet clothes into the wheeled basket and tossing them into the huge industrial dryer, five six seven eight. Permanent press here, heavier stuff over there, sleeping bags down there. It’s a little crowded but Wishy Washy has a lot of machines.
            There’s something really zen about a Laundromat. You just do laundry there, that’s all you do. I suppose the truly mad could find a way to multitask, like the twenty-something woman behind me who has not stopped talking on her phone the entire time she has been at the dryers, dumping her clothes into Ikea bags. You know, last month we just went ahead and got a storage unit, she is telling some poor soul. I just couldn’t stand all the clutter anymore, she is saying. An Asian lady and her daughter speak in rapid Korean as they pull their wet clothes out and scan the room for open dryers. The man beside them leans against the washing machine and stares into space. Or maybe he’s watching the TV above the dryers, tuned to ESPN and showing some football story about a famous player who overcame adversity of some sort. I can't tell.
            The dryers work really fast and suddenly I’m doing the dryer waltz. One turns off, check the clothes, if they’re dry throw them in the rolling basket, bum bum. If they’re not, put in another quarter, ba-bum, or move the clothes to the other dryer that’s still going, ba-da-bum.
            Everything is washed and dried in an hour. Amazing. I look at the stack of clothes all laid out, waiting to be folded, and sigh: this will take an hour too. But somewhere in my head I appreciate how wonderful this is, how fresh, to have nothing else to do for the next hour but fold clothes. Nothing else. There will be no distractions – no kids, no dirty dishes, no damn dogs barking – for a whole blessed hour. I haven’t even looked at my phone except for the one time I checked Facebook while waiting for the dryers. That’s when I noticed that Wishy Washy is in a dead spot for my cel provider, so no phone calls either.
            Maybe the staring man, or the Asian lady, watches as I set about to fold the t-shirts. I have a very particular obsession with folding t-shirts. First I pick it up at the bottom, fingers pulling it apart evenly at the side seams and fwap snapping it flat in the air. Then I fold it in half perfectly from the bottom and match it up at the armpits. Laying it flat on the table, I caress the fabric into submission, smoothing the wrinkles, pressing the hems at the bottom and on the sleeves flat with my fingers. The sleeves are then folded down and smoothed out, one pinch of the shoulder seams, and then it is folded in half. The collar is always on the left when I lay the folded shirt aside.
            The staring man and the Asian lady would peg me for an OCD housewife with a spotless house judging by the way I fold the t-shirts. Snap, fold, smooth, fold, pat. They stack up, looking fit for display in a store. But my house is far from spotless, my desk is home to stacks of mail and school paperwork which I will get to just as soon as I can, it’s making me crazy too, honey. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it stays that way because if I finish it, then I will no longer be needed. I reach for the next t-shirt. It belongs to the high-school senior who was filling out his college housing application. It’s a plain white t-shirt. He wears it underneath his band uniform.
            I linger over this particular shirt, matching the shoulder seams painstakingly, smoothing the white cotton and picturing him in his band uniform, playing pep songs in the stands during the football games. Last fall I sat with the other band moms nearby, watching, clapping along to the school fight song, laughing with an odd new happiness: pride, mostly, in this strapping young man who stood swaying with a tuba across his shoulders, as he lived his young life at full volume. Pride, and excitement for the future he was sailing into.
            I smooth the v-neck into perfect halves. He will be leaving. He will not live with us anymore. I will not be knocking on his door just to see how’s he’s doing, watching him pull the earbud out so he can hear me. His sister can’t wait to take that room over, once he goes to college. The folded white cotton t-shirt goes onto a stack, and suddenly I am thinking about the little white cotton onesies with snaps at the crotch, like the one he wore in his one-year portrait with too-big jeans and bare feet, blond hair and cheeks chubby with giggles. Holding a small brown bear, perching on a wooden stool, look over here sweetie! Smile! A plain white t-shirt. He should do his own laundry, says my husband, and so he does. But the machine is broken and I have washed his things, cargo shorts and Star Trek tees and all the same kind of socks. He only wears one kind of sock, a white crew sock that says Hanes on the bottom, so I always know which ones are his.
            The stack of t-shirts feels endless. There are two more plain white ones and as they are stacked perfectly atop one another I think, I won’t be doing this for him anymore. There’s a twinge until I remember coming home from college myself, a million years ago, dragging a bag full of dirty laundry behind me. Which my mom somehow didn’t mind washing. And now I understand why.
And then I am folding the girls’ shirts, with Hello Kitties and Little Ponies, and for a while I’m able to stop thinking about how much I will miss the boy.
            Finally the hampers are loaded with folded clothes, and they go into the car first so the dress shirts on hangers can lie on top. The sleeping bags are rolled up and ready to go back in the garage until the next Y Camp overnight. When I get home, he is there, the strapping boy, and he helps me bring in the laundry without a word. But he smiles when I set his hamper on the bed.
            “Thanks, mom,” he says.
My eyes linger one extra moment on his face, taking a picture.
“You’re welcome, son.” Really, that’s all there is to say.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Mother's Day, from far away

Dear Mom,

Yesterday I realized that this would be the tenth Mother’s Day we’ve been apart since I moved away. After spending the first 42 years of my life within spitting distance of you and Dad, ten years ago I found myself thousands of miles and three time zones away.

Everything changed. My marriage crumbled not long after the move and I longed for your comfort. My best friend died from breast cancer and I wanted so much to cry on your shoulder. The kids were growing up without their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and I was so alone. Even after I met Dan and remarried, I wanted you here to be a part of my new expanded family.

But it’s been ten years now. It’s kind of a cliché but I’ve been moving through the ten stages of loss and grief over missing you. I have many friends who have lost their moms, and for them Mother’s Day is a stinging reminder that she isn’t there at all. So maybe grieving for you while you are still here, safe and sound in your comfy house in Florida, seems silly and self-indulgent. But it’s still a loss: a loss of the way I had always imagined my life as a mother would be, with you in it.

First was denial: I will build a new life on my own out here. I don’t really need them; phone calls will be enough. Next was anger: why don’t they come visit me, don’t they know how hard this is? They must not love me. Then bargaining: I know – you guys need to move out here! I’ll help you! Even Arizona would be closer and it’s a great place to retire, the climate is so good for your arthritis!

And then there was the depression. As my kids grew, some days I was so sad that I wanted to leave California and move back to be near you. Of course that couldn't happen, because my kids’ father would not agree to let them move. And there’s also the small detail that I swore I would never move back to Florida, which I consider the sweaty armpit of America. (Hey, some people are just not cut out for humidity and giant bugs.) But that’s how much I missed you. Our all-too-short visits over the years only made me miss you more. I felt helpless as I watched you and dad grow older, and wondered if you were really happy with us so far away. Did you miss us too?

How different our lives have been. When I graduated from high school, you weren’t even 40. My firstborn is graduating this year and I’ll be 53. I remember you as a young mother, clever and vibrant and so beautiful; I remember how Dad adored you (and still does). I remember feeling special as a child, how you always encouraged my creativity, and how I hungered for your praise and approval. But I also remember that you didn’t like me all that much when I was a teen, and who can blame you: I was an over-emotional train wreck of hormones and drama. Somehow we survived that and grew closer as I got older. We actually liked hanging out. We liked spending time as a family, my siblings and our spouses and children as they came along. I remember Memorial Day and Labor Day and birthdays at our house, all of us together having cannonball contests in the pool and grilling burgers and eating watermelon, all the things I hoped would go on forever.

And then I moved away.

Ten years on, I think I’ve finally hit the acceptance phase. This is my new normal: a phone call every week or two, pictures on Facebook, cards for birthdays and holidays. It’s become enough. I know you are there and I know without question that you love me and my kids. I know I could hop on a plane if you needed me and that’s a comfort. I know my sister is near you and that is also a comfort. I know you and Dad have each other, and that is the biggest comfort of all.

I just hope you know, no matter what the new normal is, that I still miss hanging out with you, and I love you more than words can say. Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.


Me, mom and brother Bobby testing out the new Polaroid camera, 1966-ish

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Livin’ la vida Foodie

“A foodie is… a person who has an ardent or refined interest in food and alcoholic beverages. A foodie seeks new food experiences as a hobby rather than simply eating out of convenience or hunger.” - Wikipedia

Let me start here by saying I’m not much of a foodie. I’m more of a foodie-by-default. My foodieness is a product of my stepson and his dad, my husband.
Sam, the stepson, is a chef at a very fancy L.A. restaurant, one of the finest and most renowned in the city. He was a foodie-in-the-making when I first met him at age 15, when he and his dad spent lots of time together exploring restaurants around Los Angeles. By 16 I had him pegged as a future chef. He’s innately talented with food and very passionate about cooking (and a hell of a lot of fun at the holidays).
Sam and his older brother Dave, also a foodie, live about 40 minutes from us, and when Dan goes to see them there is always a restaurant involved. We had the best pho tonight. Tried this Italian place Dave heard about. Went to another ramen place down on Sawtelle. We had Thai food in West Hollywood that was so spicy, Sam couldn’t feel his face.
Then they start throwing around the famous chefs’ names. Tried Roy Choi’s new place tonight. Nancy Silverton’s pizza place was one of the best. We went to Michael Voltaggio’s restaurant, it was amazing.
So I mostly get to hear about the foodie life, but occasionally I get to tag along. I enjoy a well-prepared meal, and appreciate the culinary arts thanks to Sam. But I hail from Ohio, where dining out is a filet and baked potato (I tease, because I love them), and I'm not the most adventurous diner out there.
Here’s the thing about Los Angeles. L.A. foodie culture is just kooky. Sometimes I think restaurant guys sit around getting high, trying to think of the weirdest way to get people talking about them. Take for example the recent trend of "communal seating". This is where you go to the most popular restaurant in town and there are only long counter-height tables with stools and you have to sit scrunched up next to a total stranger, because your companion is either across from you scrunched up next to a total stranger, or next to you with a total stranger on his other side, and you can hear everyone’s conversations because they are scrunched up right next to you. Try to eat a meal with your elbows pinned to your sides, I dare you. I went to a communal seating restaurant exactly one time. After that, whenever my foodies wanted to take me to a new place the first thing I would say is they don’t have those obnoxious tables, do they?
Early in his career, Sam worked at one of Chef Ludo Lefebvre’s infamous “pop-up” restaurants called LudoBites. This is where he opens a restaurant for about 8 weeks and 8000 people try to get reservations and 300 succeed. That’s a lower admission rate than Stanford, people.
So the thing now, apparently, is to be a really big-deal chef and then open a restaurant that is SO EXCLUSIVE that not only can people not get in, but once they get in they’re not sure they’re in the right place.
Allow me to give you an example. Last year, a friend of Dan’s was able to get the four of us into a fiendishly exclusive place I will call Clandestine (because I want to help them stay secret, of course). The Chef was all the buzz, and the restaurant served (almost) nothing but petite cuts of beef that you cooked yourself, yakiniku style, at your table. Grilled tongue. Throat sashimi. I’m talking every part of a cow, and supposedly – if you were a real foodie – you would be able to appreciate the difference between Outside Ribeye and Inside Ribeye. There was no liquor license so you had to bring your own beer or wine, and if the Chef thought your bottle was worthy, he would allow you to share it with him. This was one of the gateways into getting his business card, which would give you the chance to come back again.
But the thing that blew my mind was, the signage and window paint outside the restaurant all said Teriyaki House. I thought there had been some kind of navigational error: aren’t we going to Clandestine? What’s this teriyaki business? This is one of the most exclusive, you-have-to-know-a-guy places in town and there’s no sign? In fact, the place looked run down and a bit shady. But once you’re in, there you are, paying $140+ a head to cook your own food on a grill in a poorly-ventilated room and get the chef drunk. My foodies loved it. I did not get it AT ALL. I couldn’t tell Outside from Inside Ribeye, the cow throat made me want to puke, and the whole experience made me long for a filet and baked potato. Which is saying something, because I’m really not a huge red meat fan anyway, and there were EIGHT BEEF COURSES. It was the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Judd Apatow movie and you would think he made it up. Dan, Dave and Sam accepted business cards from the Chef. I passed.
Which leads me to Valentine’s Day 2015, the catalyst for my story. Dan managed to get us into Petit Trois, the latest creation of the aforementioned Chef Ludo. It’s right next to his Trois Mec, which has recently won raves as L.A.’s best new restaurant. Petit Trois doesn’t take reservations, but on Valentine’s Day they handed out a few through one of those special credit card promotions and Dan jumped on it. He was so excited; we would be the first among our foodie-group to eat there. It was a surprise for me.
We tooled along Highland in the Hollywood area and Dan pulled into the parking lot of a shabby little strip mall across from a Mobil station. It was anchored by Yum Yum Donuts. The other stores were a dry cleaner, Tasty Thai, and Rafallo’s Pizza.
I was very confused.
Especially when I saw the valet stand in front of the Thai place.
What the ---?
Then I saw the valet sign: parking for Trois Mec and Petit Trois. I’d heard about Trois Mec and got super excited.
“Oh my god, Dan! Are we going to Trois Mec?”
“No, Petit Trois, but it’s supposed to be just as amazing.”
“Okay, but…” I looked around. “Where is it?”
He pointed to the Thai place.
That’s right. And Trois Mec, L.A.’s Best New Restaurant, the one you have to email for a “ticket” (not a reservation) two weeks in advance, has a bright yellow sign reading Rafallo’s Pizza above the door.
Petit Trois, at least, did not have communal tables. But it did have the next worst thing: no tables. All of the seating was at a counter along the wall, where you sat hunched on barstools. Hard, wooden barstools. The whole place was no bigger than my living room and packed with beautiful hipster foodies who did NOT have reservations and did not mind waiting an hour or more for a seat.
We sat down in ten minutes, thank God, at the most intimate part of the counter: the two stools at the far end. What happened next was simply one of the best meals of my life. I cannot emphasize how brilliant this food was, every bite, from the artisanal bread to the dinner omelet to the floating island dessert, a cake-like wedge of meringue surrounded by crème anglaise and pralines. Ludo himself brought our appetizers. The wine was excellent; we tried a glass of each red (I highly recommend this, it's way more fun than ordering a bottle). There was nothing weird or shocking here, not a cow throat to be found. Just pure, elegant, perfectly prepared food, and I would gladly wait an hour or more to sit on the barstools and dine there again.
I’ve lived in a few places in the USA, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are secret restaurants in Cincinnati or Orlando. We went to a teeny-tiny place like Petit Trois in San Francisco once, but they had their name on the door, and you didn’t need to know a guy to get in. Listen, I love living here, I really do. But when it comes to foodie culture, I’m always going to be that Ohio girl thinking “is this for real?” and probably writing about it. 
Because come on. Eight beef courses? Maybe I should give Judd Apatow a call.

Hey, don't I know that guy with the bronytail?