January

January 1

A new year officially. For me, March 13, 2020 marked the “new” year when I rushed home from Ireland as Trump closed the airports to international travel. The COVID-19 year. Usually, I hold an open house, inviting most everyone I know. Fresh ham (the same cut as a ham but unsmoked) sauerkraut, and rye bread are menu staples. Although on my own this New Year’s, I still intended to feast on the customary dishes. Like my search for a Christmas tree, I came up empty: not one supermarket had the ham in stock. I panicked. I needed this tradition to make the world seem normal, even for a day. After much fretting and searching, I found a local farm that sells pork: they offered me a deboned shoulder. New Year’s Day, I did the honors, shoving rosemary and garlic wherever I found an opening. Mashed potatoes, sauerkraut. and salad finished it off. I ate and drank heartily.

IMG_8565Cherry Grove Farm’s Pork Shoulder

January 6

The world, at least my part of the world, went mad today. Trying to hold on to the presidency, Trump created a riot. Hitler accepted defeat and slinked off to a bunker. Trump got his minions to do his dirty work claiming the election was a fraud. He egged on his supporters to storm the Capitol Building. They succeeded: some with guns loaded, some taking congressional offices hostage, some forcing guards to barricade the Senate chamber. Windows were broken, guns were waved, and by the end of the day, two people were dead. The attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election results failed, but striking fear into the hearts of most citizens succeeded. What’s next? 2021 is 1774 in reverse. The first revolution’s goal was to overthrow a despot- the British. This siege’s goal was to keep a despot, Trump, in power. Heart sick.

January 8

This morning, a large bird sat on the top of my neighbor’s tree. I was pretty sure it was a hawk, sitting, surveying, hoping for a meal. During breakfast, it moved to a large ash tree that graces my back yard. Most mornings, cardinals and sparrows show up around 9 to scratch at the broadcasted sunflower seeds. Not one. He soon left for better hunting grounds.

IMG_8637Cooper’s Hawk

January 20

Inaugeration. Is the siege over? Physically, the White House is now occupied by President Biden. As for the rest of the country- deeply divided. Trump’s supporters, still in denial, wait for a miracle, ignoring the truth behind his presidency.

January 24

I celebrated my birthday at my son’s house on the Jersey shore. Each morning with the temperature in the single digits, we walked along the 14th street beach in Barnegat Light. The only travelers in a desert landscape. Once on Eigg, an island in the inner Hebrides of Scotland, I looked across to the Isle of Skye. I ordered my brain to permanently imprint it’s beauty. These past few days, I gave the same order- hold on to this haunting landscape, to this untouched world.

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IMG_862214th Street Beach,  Barnegat Light, New Jersey

NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER

LOSING AND GAINING ONE’S SELF

November 1

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked phone banks for the Democratic Party speaking to folks in Ohio, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Often I only reach an answering machine. Sometimes, people hang up on me. One person wanted to help me find God. And sometimes, I get to share our mutual concern over the state of the world. Tonight, I phoned someone with a Greek last name. When she answered the phone, I said Kali Spera or Good Evening in Greek. She responded by asking me Ti Kaneis or how are you? After she learned my grandfather had been born in a small village north of Delphi, she told me that although she was 90 years old, she had already voted using a mail-in ballot. Poli Kala. Very good and very rewarding.

November 5

On a walk to the Farmer’s Market, the autumn light retrieved a sense memory. When I was in the 6th grade the school bus dropped me off around 4. Once home, I was confronted by floor to ceiling windows flooding the living room with hot afternoon sunlight, suffocating me. I wanted to escape the house or was it the family?

From the short story “It’s How You Play” in my collection Jersey Dreams.

The summer before, I had accompanied my mother, with my brother and sister in tow, to the lake.  This thirteenth summer I went on my own, picking up friends along the way or joining them in the des­ignated spot to the left of the beach, where anyone from thirteen to sixteen was welcome.  We spread our blankets in the direction of the sun, hiding our lunch in the shadow of a beach bag, and waited.  We waited for the older kids, mostly boys to show up; we waited for the lake to warm; we waited for mothers and younger children to go home.

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Now my family wants to escape me. My younger sister and her husband wouldn’t visit on my terms: backyard, social distancing, masks. Puts me in my place. But what place?

November 7

Finally, Joe Biden declared President. Hope, Relief, Black Cloud lifted, temporarily.

November 9

Drifting again, playing too many computer games. An antidote- a walk through the university gardens. My friend and I stopped at Small World, a popular coffee shop. Even with masks and social distancing, the day felt almost normal. Back by noon with plenty of time to do “stuff.” No success.

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Prospect Gardens, Princeton University

November 20

This afternoon, I attacked my nemesis, Rudebkia during a three hour stint in the garden. Another sense memory, my old gardening self. I could feel her: I was her. The welcoming warmth of the house after a day working in the cold. It reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. She describes herself as an historian of the soul. The women she interviewed said that when they relived their war time experiences, they could see themselves clearly above from the heavens and below from the ground. The sense of self drifts in and out but isn’t entirely lost.

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November 21

In another attempt at getting back parts of my old self, I decided to take a ride down the shore to Spring Lake once knows as the Irish Riviera. (See my Washington Post article “Spring Lake, Splendor on the Shore.”) In the 1940’s my parents danced to big bands at the once grand Essex and Sussex Hotel now converted to condominiums. When I was single, I would spend the day on the beach, don a coverup, wear a large sun hat, and retreat to the Warren Hotel (now torn down) order a martini at the bar and for an hour gaze at the grass covered dunes and the sea. My daughter and I spent many a happy hour perusing the Spring Lake Variety Store, a traditional 5 and 10. I often took my elderly mother to lunch at the Breakers Hotel after which we sat on the boardwalk and people watched as she called it. Once my husband and I saw an elderly couple walking past Saint Catherine’s Catholic Church holding hands: we hoped we would do the same as we aged. This brief visit seems familiar and strange.

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 Essex and Sussex House  Spring Lake,  New Jersey

November 28

Thanksgiving, fewer members of the family present. Nevertheless, shared stories, jokes, gratitude and remorse.

DECEMBER

Most years, my children and their spouses celebrate Christmas at my house. A few weeks before Christmas day, we pick out the tree, decorate it, argue over the number of lights needed, and reminisce as we hang the handmade ornaments. When I realize I’ve forgotten to string popcorn and cranberries, I’m told nobody cares. A bossy crowd. This year, my daughter and her family couldn’t make it. They were deep into preparations for moving to another state. Then, my son and his wife couldn’t come because they’d been in contact with too many people: I was uncomfortable seeing them- that old Corona Virus interference.

Wednesday-Bah Humbug. Screw Christmas. It’s canceled at my house!

Friday- Goddamn it. I’ll do it myself! I went to my favorite tree farm. Not one left. I drove around in a panic and finally, managed to get the last one in town as well as the last pine garland.

It was a brute of a tree, 7 feet tall and almost as wide. I had to get it out of the car and into the house. I huffed and I puffed and I blew the tree in. Getting it up, just as troublesome. I wrestled with it and won. Now I could put on as many lights as I wanted without commentary.

Next lights, garland, and ribbons around the outside porch, surely the easiest task of the day. I hadn’t accounted for the length of the garland or the difficulty hanging it. Unwieldy. Seeing me covered in pine boughs and lights, neighbors walking by rescued me. The husband and daughter took over, thank God, fully masked and socially distanced. We celebrated with a Christmas toast as the sun set. The heart was warmed. The self regained.

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October

I continue my morning routine: feed Milo, my 19 year old cat, empty the litter box, pet Milo for an hour, guide him to his bed, then a 3 mile walk, and breakfast with the paper. Some days I meander around the house doing chores broken up by any distraction that passes my way. The New York Review of Books on the dining room table captures my attention on the way to vacuum the sunroom. Twenty games of solitaire call to me as I drift by my desk covered with papers that need filing, something I’ve neglected since March. Old photos discovered in a folder occupy me as I move to sort out a bookcase.

IMG_8137My Greek Family in my grandfather’s village, Kastellia, north of Delphi

Late afternoon Milo time. Is it cocktail hour yet?

This month Milo bravely faced new obstacles. He is blind but could still navigate the house. On occasion he missed the litter box but not by much. He just wasn’t fast enough. Then he developed a neurological disorder which caused his eyeballs to shuttle back and forth. I assured myself that having him close and whispering sweet nothings in his ear would help his brain relax and his eyes would stop their mad movements. He never complains, not like me.

Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend sometimes a mediation on writing, on being a writer, and on teaching writing, ends with the last days of her dying dog. He became the true friend, providing an audience for her musings, her novel, giving unconditional love and support. Cats do have conditions yet Milo is accommodating and loving even as he suffers.

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One social day in the middle of the month, I spoke to friends in Ireland, Oregon, and North Carolina, then, drifted outside to plant 60 pansies as the summer flowers fade. My nemesis, Rudbeckia or Black Eyed Susans, have decided my yard is their yard and screw every other plant. I pull and pull trying to protect my 30 year old Irises and Poppies. Sometimes I delude myself that I’m winning. That night as I lay in bed with the windows open, I heard a fox howling. Eerie.

On the 27th, I had a doctor’s appointment on the Upper East Side.  It’s been 10 months since I drove to Manhattan.  The drive was fraught with fear.  A generalized COVID-19 anxiety?  I had to park in an indoor lot.  Am I safe?  I was back in my car in an hour but saddened not to enjoy New York as I usually do: no walk across town, no visit to the Morgan Library, no late lunch.  But the city didn’t disappoint.  Driving down Third Avenue, the sky a pearly grey, the Chrysler building on my left.  Restored.

IMG_9598A Pearly Sky on the Upper East Side

IMG_8695The Chrysler Building

That evening, Milo’s head started twitching back-and-forth, back-and-forth. Nothing comforted him. When he walked, his head twisted to one side: still, he’s eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom. The next morning, I found him wandering in circles, his head cocked laterally, unable to eat or drink. He must be frightened, in pain. The vet and I agree this is no way to live. It’s time. We spent the afternoon cuddled together watching the 1945 film, The Enchanted Cottage.

IMG_8241-1Milo’s last day

My first day without Milo, an empty house. I enter a room expecting to see him. A terrible loss at a terrible time.

September 2020/January 2021

January

This blog should recall chronologically my month to month journey through COVID-19. Today this approach doesn’t work. The present intrudes as my country comes undone.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021, marks the day the Capitol of the United States was stormed and defiled by President Trump supporters, shocking the nation. But why were we shocked? Trump stoked the fires of insurrection by sticking his racist verbiage into a long seething wound- inequality and purposelessness for the working classes of America. For decades, the rich and powerful have raped the United States of it’s capital, leaving millions without jobs or dignity. It’s the land of every man for himself. It’s also the land of the other, the other color, those of black, red, and brown skin who do the work and, yet, are seen as less, less than “me,” less than human.

America prides itself on being a democracy but that democracy’s foundation is racism. America boasts of being a “God fearing nation.” But the true God in America from the get go is money and power. Now that the money and power are in the hands of a very few, those at the bottom of the pyramid look for someone to blame, the other, and look for someone to lead them out of the muck and the mire. Just as in the thirties, citizens of Germany, Italy, and Spain looked for a way out. Fascism promised they were heard and would be rewarded as long as certain parts of society were blamed and eliminated. Trump promoted the same message to the unheard and the misinformed.

When I use this analysis with friends and family that those who breached the Capitol could be such people, unheard and desperate for a way out, I’m met with outrage. When I propose they were doing what many did, me included, in the sixties with sit-ins, with taking over universities, Columbia for example, more outrage. I know we didn’t have guns, I know we weren’t racists, but we were trying to be heard. If we want to prevent this country from falling apart, perhaps we should be listening and understanding their rage even if the reasons seem unfounded. I want to know why some of my family members voted for Trump, looked up to him, saw him as a savior, felt delegitimized.

I want to know how it feels to be the least heard of our population, people of color, the most injured of our citizens and, perhaps, the most resilient where for them every day is an assault, every day they can be overrun, every day is January 6th.

And yet here is what I wrote five months ago. Optimistic, naive, privileged?

September

I’m reading Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist with a friend of mine in response to the upheaval in the states.  Finally!  An unflinching look at structural racism and its participants.

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It does seem as if the United States is on the brink of something, an awareness of micro and macro aggressions towards people of color, the sheer unfairness of being white. It could pass and we’ll go back to our old tricks or some of us wonder if a civil war of sorts is on the horizon.  I could image several countries emerging: the west coast, the northeast, the south, the midwest and the west.  Other than contemplating the disruptions, the dire economic situation, the deaths due to the virus, the madman in the White House, what can we do?  Just whine?  I’m unwilling to take the risk of going to any of the protests, so contributing money seems to be the only recourse.  

In my never ending attempt to enter the world of fascism, to understand how it took hold, how people participated, were victimized or survived it, I been reading The Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frenkle which recounts her experience of owning a French bookstore in Berlin from 1921to 1939 whereupon, as a Jewish woman, she spent World War II escaping and avoiding the Nazi’s. She paints a vivid portrait of an unpredictable life for those who lived in Germany, Italy, and France. She describes everyday activities and deprivations almost like the times we live in now. Not knowing what to expect day to day, feeling the possibility of danger at any moment, thankful for those who takes risks so we can survive, and sometimes, dumbfounded by those who take advantage when they are afraid or hungry or both.

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I’m getting used to being a hermit.  Right now I’m sitting in my back yard, birds singing, a gentle breeze wafting through the air.   Most days, this pleasure isn’t possible due to Jersey’s weather, sticky and humid.  Today, there is a battle amongst the avian species for space in the bird bath- cardinals versus grackles. The grackles, a much maligned bird, are winning: they’re seen as bullies. The cardinals retreat to nearby bushes. Then the grackles have it out with each other even pushing the young aside. With limited resources, they are forced to fight amongst themselves. Would more birdbaths work? My backyard world mirrors the problems facing my fellow citizens.

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The Triumphant Grackles

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died September 20th leaving a dark hole in the Supreme Court that can now be filled by another right wing judge of Trump’s choosing. What went into her decision to stay on the court through all her illnesses? If she had left early enough, could Obama have filled her place? Was she worried that he couldn’t?

Does my cat Milo, blind and in human years hitting 90, use the same reasoning? Does he figure, I won’t be able to replace him?

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Irreplaceable

August

A Respite

My reading this month included non-fiction, cookbooks, and audio books. To escape the ennui accompanying COVID-19, I listened to Provence 1970 Luke Barr’s account of a confluence of food writers in the south of France: James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Simone Beck, Judith Jones and Richard Olney, the sometimes cantankerous painter and cookbook writer. Although by all accounts his meals were perfect, his approach to instruction was to provide general directions such as how to make a vinaigrette and then list various ingredients for a salad, so readers can make their own adjustments. I decided to take him on using his instructions for Porc Rôti au Fenouil or Roast Pork with Fennel as the main course for a family dinner in my garden. We began with a traditional French appetizer, french breakfast radishes from the garden served with butter, followed by the Porc Rôti au Fenouil served with sautéed potatoes, green beans with thyme and lemon, and, finally, dessert, peach pie.

The pie is an adaptation of one I learned while living in France with family friends, the Brenots who introduced me to good food at their summer home in Sotteville-sur-Mer and their apartment in the 12th arrondissement in Paris.

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Sotteville-Sur-Mer

My sighs, my grunts of pleasure, the closing of my eyes as I swooned over most meals amused them.   I ate everything they put in front of me: whole fish where I learned to use a spoon to get at the sweet flesh just below the eyeballs, wild hare with its innards made into a terrine, gamey yet fresh from the addition of tomatoes.  It took me twenty years to figure out Mme. Brenot’s crab soup and although mine is good, hers was perfection.

At that time, French husbands had one dish at which they excelled and probably the only one they ever cooked. For example, M. Brenot’s brother’s was a mousse of octopus including the ink. Not my favorite. But M. Brenot made an unforgettable tarte aux abricots. Finding good apricots in New Jersey is practically an impossibility. But Jersey peaches in August work.

My daughter and I have spent many a summer enjoying the sun and food of Aix-en-Provence, a second home. The meal transported us as food can often do and instead of COVID-19, the conversation drifted to good food and Lyon, the supposed gastronomic center of France. I had just finished Dirt another book about food and France where Bill Buford in his late 50’s apprentices at a Lyon restaurant.

The pandemic can be a time for regrets. One that haunts me is leaving Paris to finish my degree: my parents insisted. Sometimes, we find ourselves in the one place that is home. For me it was Paris. Everything fit: I was free. What if I hadn’t been a “good girl” and stayed? Would I have been a “good” French housewife instead? French women had only gotten the right to open a bank account in their own name, not their husbands, in 1965. I’m sure many households held on to that tradition for decades. I often railed at my mother for the measly allowance my father gave her: $100 a week for years and then, after I had left home, $200. She never complained. She felt safe after having grown up in an unpredictable alcoholic family. So perhaps I wouldn’t have been free in Paris. Although I have bragged to my husband that “I’ve been a good French housewife” whenever I’ve managed to use up everything in the refrigerator.

Later in the month, on my son’s porch in Barnegat Light, we enjoyed another bounty from my garden, all the cherries I had picked made into one pie. After which we took our traditional walk at dusk. “Can the French make a cherry pie Billy Boy, Billy Boy. Can they make a cherry pie charming Billy?”

IMG_8048 Barnegat Bay, Long Beach Island, New Jersey

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