“We’ll need to leave before it gets too hot.” We both turn our attention to the sky beyond the sliding glass door. I’m not sure whether my mom said this or I said this, wanting to anticipate what she’ll think, feel, or need. The sky, brilliant blue above in the sphere of summer, casts its direct sunlight through the windows and now rests in muted colors and shapes along the furniture and carpet. We both can read its intentions.
“You are so full of energy – where do you get it all? Can’t you just sit still?” She implores, looking over to me from her blue upholstered arm chair. I realize then, that I must have been the one to comment on the heat. I regard her plans now skeptically. Yesterday’s idea to drive to the store, to stock up on supplies, pick up some heavy items, and then perhaps to the lake before lunch burst into a thousand different fragments that cascade slowly around us, like the vibrant trails of a firecracker after the pop. I semi expect this kind of interruption – I have heard it before. “And why do you go for all these walks?” She admonishes, rather than asks.
Behind where she sits in her favorite chair in her favorite corner to her left and right along a long wall of her studio apartment, wooden planks and bricks gathered from the carpentry section of a Home Depot create the bookshelf, a homemade cinder block and wooden plank affair. This occupy wall space design she’s created since as early as I can remember supports bounded histories of the world and the quietly informed musings and reflections of her mind. In homes that managed to catch glimpses of a lake, a mountain, a valley, rooftops, and sun, always the sun, the bookcase has followed in form and duty, popping up as the first element in design strategy, around which the rest of the eclectic furnishing were arranged.
On the left corner of the bookcase, the sliding glass door opens to the balcony. From where she sits, she looks out, beyond the geraniums from last year’s Mother’s Day, still blooming brilliant pink, over the hummingbird feeder, a long tube wired to the railing in need of a nektar refresher, to the sky beyond and the evergreen tree tops. I slide open the door, and walk out to check the weather – enough room for one with a chair and table, but vast enough for the mind to take flight. The wrought iron railing and cement landing creates a safe and snug nest, suspended high off the ground, an elevation that encourages and challenges one’s perspective. From out here, the words in the books dance in the breeze, play with the sun, move into momentum, hitchhike along the roads of the vast landscape in a restless, hungry mind.
Suddenly or slowly, It gets hot. The balcony faces east, and the capricious sun, shy enough in the winter months, now blasts into the room with full on determination and vigor as if late for the expected curtain call. I retreat back inside and find the relative coolness comparatively manageable. She issues a non-negotiable statement: “Draw the curtains, please, to keep out the sun.” The resulting effect closes off the sky, shields the inner world from that without, from all its busy attention to battling words and histories made from them, from the science and formulas to the wars on peace and stillness. I withdraw myself into the rocking chair. For my mom, probably a movement that speaks of calm, a settling of my own restlessness. She’s bent over a book whose world is revealed in full bright bunting, in vast perspective, in cascading ideas that circle and attach themselves to one or the other, like heavenly bodies in perpetual, gravitational motion.
I set the table for breakfast, pulling the table perpendicular to the stove, laying out the tablecloth, this time a white backed, green clover leaf print. I lay out a few cheese sorts, a few bread choices, a jar of honey, peanut butter, yogurt. I put eggs on to boil. I make sure I walk closer to her to not have to compete with the baritone news of NPR coming from the portable CD/radio and to get her attention first. “Breakfast will be ready in about ten minutes, just waiting on the eggs.” My mom remains collected in her thoughts, sitting quietly with a cup of tea, sheltered from any outside sensual influence, hunched over an open page from a book pulled from her bookcase, from a book that has followed her from country to country, state to state. The ones that are now “out of print” and “very valuable” – talismans for a soul and recognition for a life that has been cultivated and nurtured and nourished through books. The sections slide into one another – from ancient scientific histories, spiritual histories, religious histories, to astronomies, from the ancient to the modern, from physics to mathematics, Grey’s Anatomy, of cultures and movements and linguistics – books upright, spines out, books stacked on their backs, face up. She knows where each book is located, referring to her unique, dewey decimal sort of self created system, each book read, reread, referenced and imprinted on her mind like an iron-on patch from sacred places preserved: discoveries, formulas, philosophies, culture, languages.
A separate, similarly made bookcase to the left of the entryway pays homage to the travel writing and further below these, the novels, though sparingly but purposefully chosen: Nabokov’s collection, Kazantzakis, Thomas Becket. I meander back there, my favorite shelves, while the eggs come to a boil. This small niche gives me a place in the early morning winter hours before the sun or my mom is up, where I sit on the floor with a steaming cup of coffee under the light, reading Eric Newby’s train travelogue across Siberia in the 70s or Paul Theroux’s the Pillars of Hercules, or A Time For Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, having me wish for a new career, suddenly, right now, stop everything, this new path of mine chosen only a year ago, press the breaks, turn the wheel, and screech off into a writer’s delirium. My mind travels far and wide; months pass if not years in my newly made life of a travel writer. What time has lapsed, here under the light in the morning? To where have I ventured in under ten minutes? In fact, what time has lapsed in the space from one visit to this shelf to another? In front of these wonderful books, doorways to the imagination, signs to roads we should be on, the bulk of a full humanities education displayed here for the choosing in this apartment, a wealth of knowledge, and food for a lifetime. I sigh and rethink my life. Surely by now the eggs must be done or over boiled or irrelevant?
I return to the kitchen and table, to NPR softly engineering an objectivity from today’s headlines, the cool baritone implicitly suggesting calm. A Corona variant resurges. Protests mount. Federal troops take position. Monuments come down. Vaccination efficacy. Booster availability. Wall Street workouts. Political polls emerging. Conflict rumbles in the East. Sanctions mount. I turn it off. “Breakfast is ready!” I call out, and she gently makes her way to the table, adjusting it and her seat just so, thanking me for this way greeting the morning. Second cups of coffee and tea encourage a prolonged breakfast, an unrushed affair. Although there are days in which she wants confirmation on what her eyes are signaling to her: “I’ve been meaning to ask you – do you think this shirt is light green or pale yellow?”, she can readily discern what and how much of something I’m putting on my plate. “There’s nothing that can match the benefits of real food,” she proclaims, always making sure I take that advice wherever I go. Indeed, she efficiently uses this “efficiency” kitchen to produce the “real food” of which she touts, foods coming from a wide variety of recipes found in cookbooks along the top of her cabinets and expanding their scope by being supplemented with cooking magazine pages she’s torn out from Bon Apetit and Saveur, from ink stained napkins from a long ago restaurant table, in a long ago village, down a long ago road, still fresh in the mind. She has decided to filter through these recipes, pear down her collection, and give away for lack of file cabinet room.
“I was thinking of making stifado today for lunch. I pulled the beef cubes out of the freezer last night. Do you remember? It’s the Greek beef stew we used to eat, simmered in tomatoes and onions with one critical spice.” Here she pauses to wait for my full attention to absorb the crowning moment. “A cinnamon stick, would you believe? But it’s the process of what goes into the pot first that really creates this dish. So you must do it exactly according to the recipe. You’ll remember it immediately.” I offer to put my cooking skills to use, specifying a time shortly after breakfast to start, which will give the beef ample time to tenderize all morning and midday.
We launch into a discussion of a news headline, or the day’s agenda in slow movement of morning that has lately seen no clear delineation from early morning to mid morning to midday since Covid now orchestrates life on its own time and work schedules and ways seem a thing from the past. We’ve made adjustments; the clock and calendar no longer run our lives, telling us when it’s time for something. Nature wins out, everytime. This virus now indirectly places our lives in remote locations and our schedules a flutter, instead of us controlling them. I reach for more hot water behind me on the stove. We decide on a few projects around the house that can no longer wait: replacing the screws into the rocking chair legs; washing the bathroom floor; getting some articles worth saving into the correct folder.
When breakfast is over, when dishes have been washed and cheese and yogurt returned to the fridge, when questions that have been meant to be asked have been sufficiently answered, she finds one more: “I’ve been meaning to ask you, since you’ve been back, what do you feel has changed, in your mind?” Since I’ve been back from a year in Florida, she means, and at first I’m not sure whether she asks changed about her, or changed about me. But as I welcome any opportunity to psychologically explore the glens and dales of my mind, I launch on an overview of the new challenges and broadened experiences, sharpening a vision and narrowing a focus. Sitting there, among the props of her life that have kept her momentum going – the stocked fridge, the bulging bookcase, the laptop with Internet access, her smart phone, a TV, and people in the building – she has access to what most of us access. While I was embarking from the Northwest Pacific coast to a Southwest Gulf coast, far away from where I set out, joining a new school district and getting the lay of new land, the attitudes of new people, the acclimations of new culture, my mom continued similarly from the place of her blue upholstered chair: in her books, in her magazines, from PBS, on her wide, open sky balcony. Now, since I’ve been back to visit here in her studio, I recall blazing through the stress of renting or buying, logistics and transportation, weather and comfort, all of which had me deciding not just my future life but that of hers as well. Meanwhile, she was comfortably reading scholarly articles from a stack of subscribed history of science journals. I don’t know if I answered her question, yet my travels through the states, the settling down, the wild of the Everglades and the wild of the adventure, may have not quite rivaled hers. Books can take us far.
I remove the green clover leafed tablecloth, one of those small but significant gestures of dignity no matter the size of space or table, the circumstances for the sit down, or the current decade. A tablecloth when you eat. A good quality watt reading lamp for your eyes. A plain, black skirt for high holidays, somber occasions, and concerts. Brush your hair before you go out. Learn the local language. I push the table back against the wall, which I now use to chop onions and garlic for the stifado; which later she will use for her writing and reading work, her Netflix series, her paying a bill or two. I push the blue upholstered armchair back to the corner where bookcase meets balcony.
I assemble the ingredients according to her instructions; I pull out the cutting board just above the silverware drawer. I use an awkward knife, and think maybe she just might like a real cook’s cutting knife set, but I run the risk of proving her utensils are inferior, or that she doesn’t know better, and anyway, she’s 80 and made it this far by using awkward kitchen knives and eating red meat and drinking a few fingers of Crown Royal neat when she’s done some extraordinary steps of some kind on any particular day. I pull down the pot, the pan, and notice the functionality she has created for herself. The environment seems to work with her and its elements to create harmony, a triage of peaceful living. My mom’s apartment has given her just that – harmony, based off the items she’s chosen. If I were to believe this knife is not the correct slicing knife or that a tea kettle boils water any better than a saucepan will, that a dish towel is an essential component to a kitchen sink, then I would falsely assume her life was lacking in something that is far from important. Who am I to believe she wants to uproot a perfectly capable and functioning system just because of an arbitrary age, or because of a difficulty, not impossibility, with her mobility? Why should all of what comprises and explains her existence be undermined by what might be my own desires for her? Is it my loneliness I fear, or hers? Is it my incapabilities I fear, or hers?
She returns to her seat by the glass door, comfortable in knowing where she can find everything if she needs it. A particular quote from a book on the Byzantine Empire. A certain translation from Sanskrit. A sewing pattern for a summer skirt. She’ll gather her thoughts, summon them to the frontal cortex foyer, and locate the book in her memory, the place on the shelf in her mind’s eye, brace her hands on each of the arm chair sides, push up on to sturdy feet, engage her legs for strength. Stand for a minute, reach for the new rollator, and walk, twist, or turn to reach for the exact book, most probably bookmarked in several places with post-it indicator strips in bright fuchsia, pink, or neon yellow.
“Where are the cinnamon sticks, Mom?”
“Open the right cupboard above the fridge. Behind the blue tin and just to the left of the coin jar, where I keep my laundry quarters, you will find a plastic container with spices from India. It should be clearly marked in a small baggy. The baking spices are just to the left of that bag, in a red tin.” Her spice cabinet is as equally ordered as her books, her research, her writing, her recipes. Italian spices, Indian spices, eastern European spices; sweet and savory, baking and cooking. I turn the dial on the stove to coax a slow heat from the electric coil, bringing the cuts of beef to a low simmer in the tomato sauce.
Our attention turns outward once again, the curtain having been pulled back now that the sun is overhead and no longer searing its way into the room. The blue sky and warm day encourages us both into thoughts of going to the lake after lunch. It’s a nice thought, as scenes of the light reflecting off the blue water ripples its way in dancing fancy by a refreshing breeze. She contemplates all of what this entails and the weight of its reward by her looking out past the railing. She delights in the sun on her face, the air in her lungs, the cool breeze along her skin. Somewhere along these sensations or shortly after them, she will feel the physical toll of maneuvering into and then out of the low bucket seats of the car, walking with stern focus, keeping the trepidation at bay of having to predict walking surfaces from car to bench, surfaces that might be uneven and have loose ground, not yet sure of where to locate the ramp access points. She may not see blues and greys as well as she had, but she sees extraordinarily well into what she feels she cannot muster the strength for in any given day. Does she see clear enough to predict and assess her environment? Does she hear well enough the alerts On your left! from cyclists that have me jumping out of my skin when caught daydreaming? Can a few hours at the lake cause more stress than it can in reducing it? Very likely. I do not mind at all when she admits, “I think it may be just too hot.”
It’s obvious the occupied wall behind her offers her far more enticing outings. To these places she arrives without having to finagle entryways, scope out sidewalks, pivot into and out of bucket seats; vaguely identify and hear objects around her and appease her companion by pretending to take a delight in something that caters to the physically energetic and harried groups rushing around a lake. She feels under no obligation to prove anything to herself or to me. The image I had of walking around the lake – its circumference just shy of a “good” walk, so I definitely I would go around twice to feel the delight in quick movements that get my own thoughts organized and clear – is suddenly deflated. But I remind myself that not going is ok. There is no doubt now that it’s my voice I hear so succinctly: “Why are you always walking? Why do you constantly need to clear your head?” There is merit to these questions so I do not become defensive. With what am I so preoccupied? What needs to be routed out daily? I have become a contemplating, peripatetic Clearing House.
I find myself back in my favorite section of foreign land travel while the stifado simmers, a gapers’ delay in moving onto the next project of washing the bathroom floor which was for her at one time a once-and-done ten minute mop job that has now become a tedium of strategy, logistics, complex steps and stretching dormant muscle groups that decry the whole deal as dead in the water before it even begins. So I don’t mind running a mop around the place. But first, a stop over with Eric Newby and his trans Siberian train journey. I’m both hooked immediately by the exotic lure of adventure, and brought back to one of our own train adventures: an exodus from a blacked-out Istanbul in 1974. My mother’s quintessential essence manifests itself through every page of every book here, her fragrance, her embrace, her determination, her curiosity, her fortitude. That I will open up any book here in her bookcases and not only be transformed in my thinking but transcended to the heart of a woman who never let the expectations of life stand in her way of discovery and education is a sure bet. Values and science and truths that still float off the opened pages and which imbued us with its contents: the formulas and graphs, line segments and equations surrounded my brother; reasoning and logic, biology and science fell to my sister; distant lands and strange tongues stirred my blood, creating a dream world of wonder.
I arrive finally in the bathroom, having travelled great distances through these authors in the short walk from the kitchen. I move the detergents and cleaners to the side, out of the way, run the mop over its smooth linoleum surface, lifting the dust from the corners. A familiar scent seizes recollections, shifting them into place; timelines adjust. The speed of life is pulled over, gets a warning that it’s traveling too fast, to pay attention to the limits of what our senses can absorb while we drive through different saturation zones. I look through one of her photo albums. My mother at 18 in pearls and a satin gown at her piano recital; here at 20 on a rooftop Staten Island dorm room building; here now at 30 with three children climbing around the Parthenon, imprinting her ways, the beauty that has stayed with me, that I now experience, a homogenous mix of water and saline and sky and skin and hair and real food – the scent that every mother carries and whose offspring will always recognize. My beautiful mother, at 40 in New York; at 80, organizing files in a blue upholstered chair. Hold on, I implore Time: You’re moving too fast.
We remain indoors. She thumbs her way through her recently marked articles, cut from their magazines or journals waiting to be filed. Recipes, innovations, new discoveries. From her position, she gets a lot accomplished, references the correct folder right away. She hands the clippings to me. “Manilla folder labeled Domestics” “France 1984” “Red folder Architecture” “Green folder International.” I’m impressed by both her memory and organizational skill. “Somedays the legs just don’t want to work.” I turn back to look at her, recognize the frustration that must conjure in a body whose mind is otherwise intact and ready to go. How few of us can remain behind and not feel abandoned by society, family, and ourselves when our thoughts take flight from armchairs but whose bodies refuse to cooperate? And yet, a palpable contentment resides here, within these spaciously outlined walls of both her home and her mind. Whatever is going on “out there” to which she takes minimal part, contributes to or accesses physically, does not rile up any state of unease or dis-ease. When I think of the opposite – the helter skelter all over town, the lives which are disheveled and imbalanced, whose discontent, regardless of ability to physically access it, buy it, or own it, is sufferable and maleficent. “That’s ok, Modi, there’s always another day.”
“Nothing can replace the iron and enzymes found in meat,” She now tells me, back at the table dressed for dinner, indulging in the tender stifado that has simmered for four hours and ladeled onto a bed of rice onto each plate. “I don’t know how people can get by on just beans or a simple sandwich.”
Later that evening, on my way out for that postponed walk, I pass my favorite bookcase of culture and travel. One solitary novel in hardcover, its title running the length of the spine in bright orange stands out between eastern religions and archeology. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. It’s in the perfect place, at eye level, in vivid color, reminding anyone coming in, walking through, or going on, of an extensive life within each of us, gathered from each day’s experiences, a treasure house of what it means to be both alive and fallible.