Happen To See the Most Beautiful

Let’s start this story at the beginning. Grandpa died. After that, it gets funnier.

I made the mistake of asking my mother how I could help, mostly because no one is used to my attempting to be nice, and my mother was confused enough to believe I meant it. She asked me to write an obituary. She seemed to forget about it until half an hour before I left work on Friday, when she called me at the library and demanded I churn one out for Saturday’s Cape Cod Times. Newspapers are not my thing, but I was pretty sure that was impossible. The paper’s website coyly kept secrets like what was required when to itself, but one thing was crystal clear: the paper charged a metric assload for obituaries, then charged online readers to read them. Suddenly I understood who I was dealing with and why. Before I left work, I sketched out a basic summary of my grandfather’s life from pages of notes Mom sent me, then I drove twelve whole minutes home and parked my car. When I got to the living room, Pete handed me the phone. Mom had just hung up with Emil at the funeral home and she wanted me to send my draft to Emil now, though I should call him first. So I called Emil, who agreed he’d read it in the morning. While Emil and I were talking, Mom called again. No, the top of my skull did not pop off, but I did tell her I would finish my draft, mail it and quit working for the evening. It happened to be Pete’s birthday and I was going to shut off my phones and make dinner for my very, very patient husband.

Emil sent back my draft with one minor correction. On Sunday, I sent the corrected draft and went about my business. Remember that bathing suit shopping? Yes, my phone rang twice and I didn’t hear it. That part is completely my fault. Also, this happened:

Mom: It’s ‘quahogging,’ with an A. You spelled it with an O. Didn’t Spellcheck fuss about it?
Tata: No matter how you type it, Spellcheck fusses about quahogging.

On Monday morning, I discovered an ominous email from the newspaper and that Grandpa’s obituary was not online. I pictured myself explaining to my nearly hysterical mother that her father’s obituary was not in Monday’s paper and I panicked. The office hours started at 8:30. At 8:31, no one picked up the phone. At 9:01, no one answered the phone. I responded to the email that insisted I had not met unstated criteria: the address of the funeral home and my address. The address of the funeral home was in the obituary. My address? What the fuck did the Cape Cod Times need my address for? I sent a withering response and waited.

And waited. Finally, we exchanged a few more emails filled with tasty adjectives and credit card information. I never actually swore at the woman. No, really. Instead, I called the funeral home.

Tata: Hey Emil. It’s Domenica LongItalianLastName. Do you have any close relatives who work for the Cape Cod Times?
Emil: No.
Tata: Any close friends? Distant cousins? Unwashed brothers-in-law?
Emil: No. Why?
Tata: You’re sure?
Emil: I’m sure!
Tata: Good, because they are VERY BAD PEOPLE. I am preparing to curse their ancestors.
Emil: What happened?

I told the briefest possible version of this story.

Emil: That’s terrible!
Tata: Emil, this morning I have uttered many very bad words.

Later, it turned out this conversation earned me the Mourner of the Year Award and my mother’s perplexed approval. I didn’t see that coming.

When I knew for sure the charge would clear and the obituary would print, I worked up maximum nerve, called Mom and confessed.

Tata: …and it’ll run tomorrow.
Mom: That’s okay. Everyone on the Cape already knows.
Tata: Fine, but I’m not un-cursing any ancestors.

When it was all said and done, the obituary was simple and faithful to the stories Grandpa told and Mom had the foresight to write down. If I’d had more time, maybe it would be different, but I can’t say it would be better.


HYANNIS — Austin Nickerson Walker, 99, of Hyannis, on February 27, 2012. He was born August 12, 1912, to parents Austin A. and Agnes Gardner Walker on a family farm on Mary Dunn Road and graduated Barnstable High School.

He married the late Gladys Holway in 1938; they welcomed a daughter in 1940. Austin enlisted in the Navy in 1943, serving with the Seabees in the Aleutian Islands and on Okinawa during the war, in the reserves for five years and on active duty in North Africa during the Korean War; he also sailed with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

In civilian life, Austin worked for Hood Milk Company, Corcoran Plumbing and Heating Supply Company and in hotel construction and maintenance for over thirty years. He had been the sole surviving charter member of the VFW Post 2578.

Austin and his brother Edwin, deceased, were avid lifelong fishermen and enjoyed clamming and quahogging. Austin loved flying and traveling, but he was a true Cape Codder with an incredible memory for people and places. He found something in common with everyone and always had a joke at the ready.

Austin is survived by his daughter [Mom] and son-in-law [Tom], five grandchildren, ten great-grandchildren, two great-great-grandchildren and many, many friends.

Services will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, March 7, at [Emil’s Efficient] Funeral Home, Hyannis. Burial at [La la la la la] Cemetery, Hyannis, will follow.

No one ever called him Austin. Everyone who didn’t call him Dad or Grandpa called him Ozzy. My favorite photograph of him was one Dad took when my brother Todd was about three or four, so about 1970. We were fishing for sunnies at Mary Dunn’s Pond when Todd’s attempt at casting went awry. Dad took a picture from an elegant distance of a patient grandfather carefully prying a fishing hook from the back of a little boy’s shorts. I wish life had treated him better. He was a genuinely lovely person.

For the Light That Is Reflected

Treasure appears when the hunter is ready to see it.

Between Christmas and New Year’s, the unnamed university closes all non-essential offices to conserve energy, and by “non-essential,” the university means “offices without trucks and shovels.” I don’t mind and plan projects that require some attention to detail, despite the fact that I have no attention span. A few days ago, I opened an old cigar box I’ve been tossing photographs into for a decade or so and went about scanning the images. Pete did all the actual scanning and I did the sulking, pouting and flouncing off in several colorful huffs. I wanted to do the scanning myself because I’m selfish and crave project-related glory, but the scanner refused to connect with my laptop; it took Pete three tense days to scan the pictures and mail them to me in small batches. I resized, labeled and put them up on Facebook, where many of my relatives were overjoyed to find them and at least one was mortified that his friends could see we were, in fact, dirty guinea wop dagos. Merry Christmas, wannabe cracker, get some self-respect!

I’ve had most of these pictures since my grandmother died nineteen years ago and I’ve shown them to people. Funny thing: this unfamiliar picture turned up in the scanned picture pile. The little boy is my father, but I had no idea who the woman was. One of my cousins asked her mother who the woman in the picture was. “That’s Andy’s mother,” she said and my heart skipped a beat. It’s a complicated moment. It suddenly dawned on me I’d never seen a picture of Giannina, the image of her in my head came completely from stories and I didn’t even know that. I believed she was thin, severe and had dark brown hair, but here she is lush and has light hair. Her face also seemed strange until I looked at the picture under the biggest magnifying glass I could find and recognized her son Andy’s – my father’s father’s – features. Giannina died just about the time I was born. Where are the other pictures of her? Why had I never noticed this picture before?

For Christmas, I got to see my great-grandmother’s face when she was just about my age. What did you get me?

A picture may be worth a thousand words but this one won't shut up.

After she died, my grandmother became mysterious. She’d told some carefully chosen stories of her childhood, a few about her young married life and almost nothing about any time between my father’s birth until I was a teenager. She told stories about her extended family, but left out most of her own. I did not know until I was a budding drama queen that my father and Auntie InExcelsisDeo had a sister who’d died in childhood. It was like a spell broke when I told the assembled family I knew there had been another baby. After that, her name was mentioned. Gram told me lovely and terrible stories. Throwing open a once-locked door was the only way I got anywhere. After she was seventy, Gram told me she missed that little girl more with the passage of time – that you’d think it would be the other way around, but it wasn’t. If she’d lived another ten years, I’m not sure how much more about her life I would have ferreted out of her, since I only saw this picture days after she died. She was smart, tough, critical, stylish, emotionally distant from her family, always the adult and lonely. Everyone leaned on her and she had no one to lean on. Despite everything I knew about her, I did not really know that she had once been young and beautiful. I didn’t know she’d ever had a carefree moment in her entire life until I saw this picture, hidden in a coat closet in the bottom of an old box.

Cats And Chicks Can Get Their Kicks

I like this food writer’s style. At the farmers market on Friday, we found beautiful tomato peppers, which I’d never seen before, enthusiastically described by the farmer as being the inspired pet project of her elderly Hungarian friend. This morning, I read the recipe several times and thought I could do it.

Your classic good news/bad news scenario in jarred form.

I was right! After I roasted the peppers, the brining, salting and packing was a breeze. I loved this recipe until I dropped three 8 oz. jars into hot water for processing and heard a loud CRACK! The bottom of one jar cracked cleanly, and as I lifted the top of the jar, peppers slid out the bottom. I cleaned out the pot, boiled more water and processed it for 10 minutes. Despite the pepper explosion, this recipe was so easy I plan to pick up a case of peppers and jar them this weekend. This was a really exciting project.

Hardly exciting: last night, Daria whispered in my ear that yesterday’s Trentonian published a picture of Poppy’s father and his girlfriend lying dead on the road with his boots sticking out from under a tarp. Today’s coverage is somewhat more respectful and less barbaric. In another turn of unbelievable events: today is Poppy’s birthday, and most of her Facebook friends don’t know. Oh the places people will go when they don’t know where we are.

Watch Closely Now

Last night, Pete and my niece Lois prepped food for a party the family’s throwing tonight for my mother’s birthday. After three hours of slicing, peeling and chopping, Pete washed his hands and took out the compost.

Pete: Do you know anything about a couch in our backyard?
Tata: A what?
Pete: There’s a couch in our backyard.
Tata: I do not know anything about a couch in our backyard and you’d think if we had a couch in our backyard I’d know something about that.

We went out for a look.

Pete: This is not your couch?
Tata: No, it is not my couch, but if a mysterious couch were actually a gift from God, this would be the couch God would have delivered.
Pete: What?
Tata: Because this is chaise longue in a miniature leopard print.
Lois: This is like the perfect thing, isn’t it?
Tata: Well, for my current living room it should be zebra, but THERE IS A COUCH IN THE BACKYARD.
Pete: I’ll call the tenants and ask if they know anything about it.

Pete walked away and started dialing. I grabbed one end and lifted up the couch too easily for it to be expensive.

Tata: Or maybe it’s IKEA. That would be good news for ME.
Pete: Jane says it was at her ex-boyfriend’s house and it wasn’t cheap.
Tata: No, of course not, but a couple of nights outside and it’ll be trash. We can’t leave it here. It looks lonely!
Pete: We’ll keep it next to the garage, but we’re not bringing it inside and we’re definitely not feeding it.

A free-range couch. Rare in these parts.

In other, preposterous news: the father of Poppy, married last weekend to my cousin Tony, was killed last night in a motorcycle accident. If you saw it in a movie you’d get up and walk out.

Smoke On the Horizon

Previously on Poor Impulse Control: Dad died in 2007 and left us homework. In 1997, a healthy portion of my shiny-shiny brain was wiped clean and I had to re-learn basics like Who am I? and How many fingers am I holding up? For a decade, learning was both everything I did and too exhausting to contemplate, so when Dad explained nothing and left us professional kitchen equipment, I was not so sure my brain was going to refill up with fancy thoughts. Surprise! Even a terrible functional memory is not preventing my brain from frothing over and thank you very much, do you have a towel?

Yesterday, Pete and I bought a food sealer contraption on sale at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Oh ho, you say, Aquarius with Scorpio-Scorpio, you know better than to purchase appliances while Mercury is retrograde. Isn’t your laptop kerflooey? Indeed, that laptop is a paperweight and I do know better but wait: dude, it was on sale, the box had been opened and the contents rifled, one easily replaceable part was missing and I had a coupon, so the contraption that was on sale for $139.99 – 20% for the coupon and 20% for the rifling = $83.99. But it’s only a bargain if it works, so we restrained ourselves in the store and the parking lot and on Route 1 and across some back roads and while Pete fixed a plumbing emergency at Trout’s house and through the grocery store and most of the way home. I may never have been so rational in my entire life. I don’t know how you people do it.

See, the thing is I have this dehydrator. I don’t know why Dad had it or what he used it for, but it sat in Pete’s basement for two years before I said, Well, maybe I should sorta kinda probably attempt to figure out what that does, and brought it upstairs to try it. I’ve been drying fruit and herbs and vegetables and it’s all been very interesting but about 1/4 of everything I dried turned blue and fuzzy. Blue and fuzzy in a sweater may be grand but in the pantry or the fridge it is alarming. Pete maintains that everything dried should sojourn in the freezer until employed. Well, crap. Potatoes went blue and fuzzy in Ziploc bags, tomatoes went blue and fuzzy in Ball jars. Up from the recesses of ancient memory bubbled some of Dad’s advice: You need a vacuum food saver machine. Vacuum food saver machines are bitchin’. It was a very ancient memory.

When we finally got home, I set up the machine and discovered the easily replaceable part was actually inside the machine. I can set up things I’ve never seen before because I am mechanically inclined and members of my family are allergic to manuals. Most devices are pretty simple anyway as long as you remember they were designed by people who would rather be watching cartoons. So. I set up the machine, stuffed steamed chard into a bag and pressed the button. ZOOSH! The machine sucked the moisture right out of the bag and sealed the bag. It was all very loud, so Pete came in from outside and paraphrased an old Garrett Morris line: “I was driving by when I heard you using that appliance.” Then I stuffed steamed beet greens into a bag and ZOOSH! Out went the liquid and the machine sealed the bag. The the Tray Full light went on and the machine would not seal, forcing me to read the manual. I am still recovering from this trauma, but I did figure out how to open the machine and empty the liquid from the tray, which is not very large. Note that beet juice looks great on hardwood floors.

Anyway, Mercury in retrograde is the time when people are supposed to backtrack and fix broken stuff or re-think plans that went awry. I spent the next hour sorting everything I’d dehydrated all summer, stuffing it into quart bags, using the machine, labeling everything and organizing the fridge. I was very pleased with myself and I discovered that apparently I have all the eggplant in Middlesex County, which is very exciting when one considers Pete won’t touch eggplant. Guess what I’m eating all winter!

The machine is so loud I’m sure my neighbors were thrilled when I quit. This morning, Pete was still in bed when I took apples and beets out of the dehydrator. I’ll deal with those later. In the meantime, it’s worth considering what it means when you have gear that requires the purchase of further gear, which has its own accessory gear, and that I’ve alphabetized my fridge. I am learning a great deal at a crazy speed. Next week: I’m taking a class on cold frame gardening, another plunge for my brain. Hang onto your towel.

And Hide Her Away From the Rest

This eruption is known as the first major explosive eruption of rhyolite magma in nearly a century, since the 1912 eruption of Novarupta.[7] Although there have been rhyolitic eruptions in the southern section of the Southern Volcanic Zone in the past, these are relatively scarce and there is no historic rhyolitic eruption of the magnitude of Chatén.

Dad died 1 April 2007 and gave his children homework. I took home the trays of his slides, carefully wrapped in plastic bags, and in plastic bags, the trays of slides quietly suffered the continuing ravages of time and mildew. I’ve half-heartedly shopped for a slide scanner, but left my credit cards in my wallet because a good scanner is pricey and I had my doubts about me. Some of these damaged slides should be restored by professionals, which is also going to be expensive. On Tuesday, my laptop fell into a soap opera-grade coma and the next day, I found myself confused by having time on my hands. I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember having an idea, but I must have. Next thing I knew, I was up in the attic, grabbing the slide sorting light and two trays of slides, and down in the living room, brushing away mildew and decades of dust. The slides now sit in labeled archival pages in three-ring binders in the same order they were in the trays, with nine or ten trays to go.

I forget, sometimes, the only thing in my way is me.

She Was Before the Years Flew By

My grandparents Edith and Andy in their restaurant the Towne Spa, South River, NJ.

The roadwork on Routes 18 and 27 was supposed to wrap up in April, then July, and now I have no idea. Despite the grave danger to my delicate person, I’ve been bicycling to and from the library this week. Cars career around corners and trucks rumble ominously, but I am brave, with my helmet and little bell. Out of my way, pedestrians! Plainly, I am important enough to wear sunglasses to hide my identity or prevent sunglare from causing me to pedal into a bus. Either way, I am so interesting! What could my interesting story be? Why is that grandma riding that bicycle at this stupid hour?

Dad in front of the restaurant, possibly modeling resentment; if not, trying resentment on for size. And jodhpurs.

Recently, we had a visiting Californian house guest, who was horrified by the excesses of New Jerseyians. For one thing, when you live in a desert it’s hard to adjust to monsoon season just off the Turnpike. It’s rained for about two months. Backyard butternut squashes died of root rot. Our guest was positively aghast when I accepted a plastic bag at the grocery store so I could clean the cat box, which was when I pictured cleaning the cat box with a kitchen spider and an open window. As your carbon nag, I truly enjoyed being lectured about quirky Al Gore, especially after our third glass of wine, when it’s probable I will learn very little. My brain felt like it was full of soda and fuck all that noise was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it. Instead, I found another pillow, poured another round and reminded myself that I can always live greener.

You’re Gonna Rise Up Singin’

Perhaps you’ve noticed I cope with insecurity through artmaking and prodigious swearing. Times are terribly uncertain. I’m armed with Dad’s Ball Jars, one-sixth of Dad’s remaining cookbook collection and a bad fucking attitude. About two weeks ago, I started pulling down cookbooks and reading them with what I was seeing in the farmers markets in mind. You will be surprised to hear I couldn’t find a single goddamn recipe for canning sugarplums, but that turned out fine since I couldn’t find sugarplums either. On Sunday, Pete and I jarred blueberries with a buttload of sugar and a spoonful of rum. As jarring processes go, this one was truly simple. Cleaning up afterward required dedication and produced bleach-pruned fingertips. Later, we played Edward Scissorhands with eggplant and jarred some zingy caponata. I love you and all, but touch my caponata and I will stab you repeatedly with a grapefruit spoon. Do not give me the boo-boo eyes. I am a hard woman!

Dad died two years ago, and this dehydrator sat in Pete’s basement nearly the whole time. We have no idea if this thing will dry fruit or achieve low-earth orbit, so tonight we peeled, cored and sliced apples – for SCIENCE! Currently, the mothership emits a hot, moist apple vapor that is immediately swept outside by an overworked window fan. I haven’t found much in the cookbooks about dehydrated foods, but as a preservation method dehydration is kind of interesting. I’m sure I’ll have storage questions. The Ball Co. book says storage is no problem: sterilize jars, let ’em dry and store your dried whatsises in a cool, dark place, and I say whatsises because the book intimates an industrious yet insecure person like myself can dry just about anything. Whatever you do, do not picture clam jerky. Just imagine the pretty, pretty fucking jars.