Ganahl’s writing is sassy, fiery (the prose equivalent of her red hair and love of rock and roll), and many readers will nod in amused sympathy as she recounts her disastrous forays into the world of online...
Jane gives an overview of the book:
Chapter 6 – Of Death and Recipes
“Can you remember how to make Grandma's strawberry shortcake?” Erin asks brightly. “I just remember that she used Bisquick, and there was sugar involved. I’m making dinner for Alex tonight and I’m on my way to Whole Foods.”
Right, Alex – the new man, the junior partner. She must actually like this one to cook for him. Most of the others have warranted only party dates before she has graciously, sunnily, moved along to the next hunk, trailing her commitment-vs.-abandonment issues behind her.
I hesitate. "Honey, I never got that recipe from Grandma before she died. She started with Bisquick, but she altered the recipe. And she never wrote it down. I've tried faking it a few times but haven't ever really gotten it right."
A pause on her end. "Oh, right. Hmmm… Maybe I'll just buy those little angel food cups, but they're not the same. Nobody made it like Grandma."
"No, you're right about that." I'm momentarily lost in a blurring of memories and guilt.
"Anyway," she brightens, “That was a good column today! Although I felt kind of bad after reading you had a hard time being by yourself. You told me you’d be fine, you poop! I should not have left you….”
“Nah, nonsense,” I cut her off. “I was just being a big baby. You were right to go and meet Gap Ad Man. I can’t leech off your life force all the time. Unfortunately.”
“You should get some good mail today – I bet there are a lot of women who feel the same way,” she says encouragingly. “My dad is a huge baby when he’s sick, and so was Chris, remember?”
I don’t tell her about the assassination emails I’ve gotten today because of my errant and bitter line about men. Why yank her head out of the clouds?
“And you should see what I'm cooking tonight!” she says. “Mushrooms in sour cream on brown rice, artichokes, and I'm making a salad with pears and Gorgonzola. . ."
I want to blurt out, "Good God, how did you learn to do that?" but instead I manage some words of praise: "My little girl! All growed-up to be Alice Waters. "
God knows she got no help in that regard from me.
* * *
Being the parent of an older child is often a wrestling match between feeling good about what you’ve done right and guilt over having failed to pass along certain essentials. In Erin's case, I do think I did a lot right: she says "please" and "thank you," puts gas in the tank when she borrows my car, doesn't smoke and is kind to animals.
But where did I fall short? On pretty much every domestic skill there is. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, car maintenance (hey, it ought to be a required class in high school), sewing – although she learned that from my mom, sitting eagerly at her knee while Grandma worked at her Elna sewing machine, starting at about age four. I’m pretty sure she did it just to make me look bad, since I rejected all of my mother’s attempts to get me to follow her down the Martha Stewart path.
Actually, all the domestic skills Erin acquired were from my mother, the Queen Mother of household arts – especially cooking. I was the family’s big disappointment in that area, the Sister Who Never Cooked A Turkey or Hosted Christmas Dinner. Interestingly, my mother never threw herself on the dogpile when the family hassled me about my lack of cooking or homemaking talent. As I got older, I realized she was far more interested in my developing the skills I did have. When my first story appeared in the paper, she smiled at me radiantly.
“Well, there!" I remember her saying. “This is your gift."
Anyway, I do believe that the most important pass-downs in a family are not culinary skills, but traditions that leap silently like skipping rocks from Mom to me to Erin. They morph with every generation, but what remains? Holiday practices, religious beliefs, principles. And certain genetic personality traits: a grassroots feistiness, a love of music and art, and the ability to burp on demand.
My mother did her best to stifle that talent in us all, and Erin lags terribly in the competition. At her age I could belch BUSCHBAVARIANBEER without stopping for breath.
Lisa was also a queen - not just of belching (she could burp the opening lines of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”!) but of domestic skills. She was a great cook and home decorator – but also a killer seamstress. When Theo, her little angel boy, was little, she made his tiny clothes – including a lined overcoat. And she designed and made hats. Hats. With her own hands.
I still have two of them hanging in my bedroom to remind me of my clever sister. Well, to remind me of the happier memories. Days on the beach near her SoCal home, her blushing announcement that she was pregnant at last, phone calls that would start with her salutation: “Bitch!” She was so funny, so wickedly clever.
There was a reason everyone called Erin “Lisa” by accident when she was growing up: they not only looked alike – fair and freckled and blond – but because they were cut from the same crazy quilt. Erin auditioned for the Shakespeare play at her private Middle School for Brainiacs (as we liked to call it) by reciting Monty Python’s “lady of the lake” soliloquy from “Holy Grail.”
“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”
And Lisa, in turn, knew how to do a wicked rendition of Python’s Fish-Slapping Dance, although she’d use whatever else at her disposal – wet dishtowels, tennis rackets – in place of the dead piscean creatures used in the original sketch.
She, whose romantic history was sketchier even than mine until she met her husband, Terry, told me once that she didn’t understand why I kept falling for short-term, dead-end relationships. “I know being single is a drag, but you ought to value yourself more. Being married is not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; you should worrying about being married and focus more on being loved by someone right for you.”
It was excellent advice – and one of these years I plan to follow it.
And if anyone could have remembered mom’s strawberry shortcake recipe, it would have been Lisa, Mom’s clone, born on her 32nd birthday. That dessert was good in a completely un-fancy, Southern way, as befitting my mother’s poor childhood in Central Florida: sweetened Bisquik biscuits sawed in half, filled with chopped-up summer strawberries, also sweetened, topped with both (sweetened) whipped cream and milk.
I've tried it dozens of times in the past few years but have never captured what it was that made hers so good. Something was always missing. The biscuits fell apart, or weren’t sweet enough, the strawberries got too soupy from sitting. By the time we realized how ill my mom was, there was no time to ask her to write down the recipe. Or it hardly seemed the most important thing to talk about.
In fact, strawberries were key in my realization that Mom was doomed. Dad was away on one of his incessant walkabouts – his trips to the desert to play golf or visit his sister in the Tetons – so I went over to have dinner. I was startled to find her sartorially-proper self disheveled (had she suddenly become a wino?) and the entire house in shambles. Especially the kitchen: there was leftover food everywhere, including some TV dinner trays (my mother?) with scraps still clinging to the tin.
And by the sink: a basket of strawberries that she’d left out on the drain board for so long that they had nearly liquefied. There was a river of strawberry juice running like blood across the counter.
The fact that she - the compulsive kitchen neatnik - didn't consider this problematic told me she was in dire straits. When I pointed out the potential Health Department citations in the kitchen, she just sighed, and looked at me with ill-focused eyes. “I’m just tired, that’s all.”
I called Dad immediately and he headed for home; Anne, Rob and Lisa all agreed Mom had sounded loopy on the phone lately. Could someone get advanced Alzheimer’s in a week’s time? Should we hire a caretaker immediately to prevent future strawberry rivers? We talked breezily, tight as siblings can be, to hide our terror.
A few days later the tests revealed a brain tumor the size of a golf ball on the lobe of her brain that governed personality – hence her descent into slow speech, the diminution of her sparkle and the loss of her fashion sense. Surgery was hastily planned for the next day. “Well, at least we’ll now have irrefutable proof that I have a brain,” she joked haltingly to Erin, who laughed bravely in Mom’s company but sobbed herself to sleep that night. Just like that, there were no more family dinners, no more strawberry shortcake.
God, I should have asked her how she made it while she could still talk. Or Lisa, who’d have known it. But there was no time. No time to breathe, let alone have recipe-exchange parties. I remember the tender look on Lisa’s face when she flew up to see Mom at the end, and came into her sick room at home. Mom had lingered in a coma for a week – long past the time we expected her to slip away. Lisa took her hand, and I heard her whisper: It’s okay, I’m here, we’re all gathered. You can go now.
And so she did, within hours, at the behest of her most-adored youngest. Who, it turns out, had her own crisis in the works.
When Lisa told me, just three weeks after we’d buried Mom’s ashes in the garden at church, that she probably had cancer too, that she’d suspected this for a while, I just stared at her.
“If you leave, you’re taking me with you,” I told her evenly, despite inner screaming. “Because I can’t bear to be left behind again.”
She smiled, looking pale but of course elegant in her handmade hat and perfect Ralph Lauren outfit at Puck’s cafe in Manhattan Beach. She came to need those hats when she lost her hair. But she never lost her sense of humor - or her commitment to being the perfect hostess, much like our mom.
I went to Manhattan Beach to visit her when she was about a month from dying and she had put fresh flowers in the guest room, where the bed sheets were turned down. After she died 11 months after mom, leaving me behind (and saying there was much I still had to do), in a fit of grief I vowed to take up her love of all things Martha Stewart: gourmet meals, a perfectly-decorated home, and neat-as-pin attire. But then reality, as it always does, interrupts my self-improvement plans. Grief makes me a slob, not a princess, alas.
I let everything go to weeds: my house, my body, my boyfriend. I didn’t want anything or anyone to love me, and I sure as hell didn’t want to love anyone. Only Erin understood my raging withdrawal; only she stood staunchly – like a blond angel with a mighty left hook – between me and a deeper depression, refusing to let me slide. She could have spent that summer working on the East Coast, but instead she came home to me, her flawed and grieving mom, to charm me back to life. I suppose I could have used that summer to learn to cook, but, I figured, why start now?
So Erin got the short end of the domestic stick. No sitting at my side while I taught her the fine art of crocheting, no whipping up cocktail dresses on the Elna, and for sure no cooking lessons. But I did the best I could. And crossed my fingers that Erin would look to my more worthy family members for role modeling. So far, it’s working out pretty well.
“Hey, I have an idea!” Erin says. “I'll just keep it really simple and do like you used to do for dessert – cut a cantaloupe in half and put strawberries and ice cream in it!”
Ingenuity and the ability to think on the fly: this, she gets from me.
Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, editor, author, consultant and community organizer in San Francisco for twenty-five years. She is the author of the novelized memoir, Naked on the Page: the Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife (Viking), which has been optioned for...