Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Stone Salad

(Note: This story is true. I tried -- oh how I tried -- to fictionalize it but, really, the truth is stranger than fiction. There may be a bit of revisionist history and faulty memory but, that said, it is essentially a true story.)

The house was a Victorian lady with a tall imposing tower-- well beyond her prime. Her once lush chocolate brown had faded to a dun color with an undercurrent of yellow showing through. Her scalloped shingle decorations were missing pieces like an old mouth devoid of a few key teeth. The ornate screen doors retained their gingerbread scrolls but the screen itself was torn and frayed letting into the cramped entry all manner of flies, bees and hornets that died and littered the corners of the floor with their fragile carcasses.

She was an odd house for this little southern Vermont community where most of the dwellings favored a colonial style or farmhouse motif with screened-in back rooms and rocking chairs on porches, and potted geraniums emphasizing their whiteness.

Odd as she was, she perfectly suited her inhabitants. The master of this manor looked for all the world like Danny DeVito-- short and dark with a monk’s tonsure of hair fringing his shiny bald pate. He shuffled when he walked but at a pace that belied the concept of shuffling as he hurried to answer the multi-toned and lengthy gonging of the door chime. The chime was accompanied by the howling of three tiny dogs that sounded, as their howls echoed down the halls, as if they were the very Hounds of Baskerville, deep and belying their smallness. On sunny days, it was a laughable introduction to the household. On dreary days, it sent shivers up your spine.

His wife, or companion, was a ramrod-straight, quiet wraith of a redhead of few words. But who could blame her? The voice of the lord of the manor rolled from the depths of his diaphragm and filled the foyer with a mix of welcome and spookiness as the full-size half-nude bronzes populating the hall looked on. How this strange milieu was created in Vermont is anyone’s guess. It was rumored that this voice had been a great force in the halcyon days of radio serials and its owner had been a bit player in movies in the 1940's and '50's. I totally believed it though I had no proof. When I visited the dwelling there had been no Google to assuage my curiosity. The theatrics of the house and its inhabitants screamed of Old Hollywood -- another time and another place.

The atmosphere was one of what I called “moldy money“ – money so old, and earned so long ago, that its traces lingered like the scent of something unidentifiable … elusive. And what seemed like a fortune long ago no longer was -- yet the sense of it remained. 

Today the twin forces of faded wealth and fierce independent living co-mingled in this strange household. The large upstairs bedrooms were rented out as a kind of quasi-nursing home turned respite-care safe house for an assortment of people that society forgot. When the meager income from the moldy money would not pay the taxes, the rooms became available.

And that was why I was here.

The large front bedroom was sparse and spotless. A queen-size bed. A dresser. A bedside stand with a Big Ben clock ticking away the hours. Sheer, white curtains fluttering in the breeze. A large wooden armchair.

Marissa grinned her toothless grin as I entered the door. Her speech was halting and labored in the twisted convolutions of her wounded brain. Her hands and knees were stiff as boards and it was my duty as a visiting occupational therapist to help her exercise and feed herself. Yet we both knew that little real progress would be made, and that the funds would dry up when her progress became only maintenance. We both dreaded that day, and really worked hard at improvement-- like rolling a boulder up a mountain. God gave Marissa a wonderful gift in the form of the loveliest of singing voices … pure and sweet and unimpeded by the cerebral palsy that contorted her speaking voice. It felt like the closest thing to a miracle I had observed in my therapist’s life. Once I discovered this, singing was a part of our visits: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” regardless of season.

Another part of my visits was the constant invitation from the lord of the manor to join him for lunch. It did not seem a professional thing to do nor did I want to deplete their meager store of groceries. I declined time after time. But, as I suspected that our visits were drawing to a close, I wanted to stay, to soak up this odd environment, to enjoy this eccentric and lonely altruism. 

“Come,” he commanded, crooking his finger and heading down a dim hallway lined with Old Master style paintings, dark and imposing. “I’ll make you a salad … you’ve never had one like this before.”

And indeed I had not. The kitchen, surprisingly small and light for the rest of the house, looked sparse and bare. One large red onion was sprouting in a jelly jar on the sill. Thwack …

The green tip sprouts were amputated from the bulb of the onion, gone and chopped before I knew it. The tiny, ancient refrigerator flew open and, like a juggler plying his craft, a jar of this and a lump of that, a hunk of something and a bit of something else unidentifiable, polka-dotted the counter. 

One last green olive in a bottle was fished out and chopped, its red pimento heart becoming six tiny pieces, a spoonful of salty brine extracted before going back in the fridge. A dry lump of cheese no bigger than a marble was grated down to a fine sharp powder. One of the juggler’s pieces was a scrap of hard salami diced into the tiniest of miniature pieces.

Now my host coaxed a few hearty chunks from the root of a celery stalk, wrapped in moist paper and saved for who-knows-how-long but still useful. One tiny carrot became little golden pennies to add to the mix.

Smack … the flat of a knife blade squashed a clove of garlic and a heel of bread became croutons toasted with a few drops of olive oil from an almost-empty bottle.

All I could think of was the story that has gone around the world of the beggar denied food but allowed a pot and a spoon and water to boil, tricking others into contributing a bit of this and a bit of that to the stone he was boiling for his "stone soup." With all the contributions the result was the finest of soups … how clever was this beggar in slaking his hunger!

Magically the old, cut-glass bowl began to fill, and the garlic perfumed the air and invaded my senses. A single leaf of lettuce, a scrap of green pepper, one tiny tomato, a radish no bigger than my pinkie gave up their color and flavor as his knife flew. Yes, my host tricked all the bits and pieces of leftover and usually thrown out food into a salad the likes of which … as my host had said … I had never tasted before. It was rich and complex and delicious and needed not a speck of dressing as the flavors blended into a sumptuous gustatory delicacy served in small but oh-so-satisfying portions.

Within a month, my patient visits were terminated as Marissa was judged to be on a maintenance-only path and no longer eligible for therapy visits. I missed her joy at seeing me come in the door and I missed her clear, bell-like voice and the dual miracle of that voice and the magic salad.

Now, I make this salad often in my own home when I have bits and pieces that do not seem substantial enough to stand on their own.

And my children have it in their lexicon of family language:  “Rock Salad,” for my host indeed went by the name of “Rock.” And, in my mind, there’s only the slightest difference between the man behind the Rock Salad and the one behind stone soup: both were old tricksters of the highest order, making something wonderful out of a wholly improbable start.

This lesson will not be forgotten as the taste of that salad lingers still on my tongue the way the memories of Rock linger in my mind.

Recent Posts:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Room with Ten Doors

Alice felt a good deal like her namesake. Her mother had fallen in love with the “Alice in Wonderland” stories when she was pregnant and named her first born daughter Alice. Once Alice was old enough to understand the chaotic and mysterious story, she seemed to embrace the strangeness of life.

And today was definitely a strange day. She had accepted an invitation to “tea.” Now, I ask you, who in the year of our Lord 2015  -- in rural Vermont where women drive pick-up trucks, stack wood and shear sheep -- gets invited to tea? Alice, that’s who. And from the time she arrived at the old house on the banks of the Batten Kill, she experienced one strange and fanciful thing after another.

Her hostess was a quixotic elderly lady that she had befriended over the counter at the little red country store where she toiled away her days lacing imagination and fantasy with her work. There was never enough time to converse properly and thus Alice was pleased to accept an opportunity to chat unfettered by duty.

Entering the house, she was immediately assailed by the perfume so peculiar to old houses; a potpourri of dry wood and vegetation, of old books, wool throws and scented soap. The power of the aromas transported her to magical, long-ago times when she had, in fact, had tea with women that she thought then to be the very definition of “old,” women steeped in crocheted shawls and. marinated in history. But now, as she herself was considered old, Alice found fewer and fewer of these older women, these friends, family and mentors. She was not aware until today how much she missed them.

The house stood stoic, like a lad dressed for military inspection, as the hostess of the tea party explained some of its history and renovations, ownership and role in family holidays and summers in Vermont. And then, with a quirky grin, she told Alice that the very room that they were standing in, not a big room at all, was the room with ten doors. Alice’s head swiveled, for she had not seen ten doors at all. But there they were, blank, white identical doors marked only by the black-strap, pounded-iron latches; one door to the attic, one to the cellar, another to the kitchen and yet another to the parlor. There was a door to the powder room and one to the “tub” room, a door to the porch, another to a closet and yet another to a bedroom. The tenth door was the door that allowed entrance to -- or exit from -- the mysteries and surprises that the walls contained. Oh, how Alice longed to peek behind the doors.

Instead, she followed her hostess into the kitchen where, to her amazement, the outside window boxes pressed their rich blooms of phlox and geranium right to the old wavy glass as if asking permission to come in. “Ah,” she thought, “this is what window boxes are meant to be but rarely are!” Alice almost expected to see a miniature white rabbit with a pocket watch emerge from among the blossoms and say: “I’m late, I’m late – for a very important date.”  Why, Alice asked herself, had she waited so long to get to know this lady better?

Tea was placed on a tiny round table and served in porcelain cups with a vase of fresh flowers and tiny tea cookies. Alice and her hostess sat in comfy chairs, looking out over the lawn and spreads of black-eyed Susans to the banks of the river below. And then … and then … Alice began to peek behind the doors. Not the ten physical doors, mind you, but the doors of the mind of this woman who had lived a long time, experienced so much, who was wise and funny.

For three hours, Alice sat and sipped, free associating and sharing with her hostess. Doors of literature flew open, touching love poems were read. The shock of shared widowhood was discussed and the quality of their loneliness was compared. Instead of the usual topics of roads and weather that were covered over the country-store counter, they examined the naivete of believing that race relations where solved years ago and the chaotic political scene of today. The joys of music and importance of family were explored, youthful pleasures were recounted. The complications of the electronic age were analyzed. The changing of the scenic vista beyond the window boxes – trees growing and houses sprouting in what used to be fields – were discussed as a metaphor for the changes in life that could not be controlled. The mystery was that these discussions had no rancor or regret.

Alice realized she was reluctant to leave the rabbit hole she had gone down, to close the doors that had flung open. She had not expected to hookah-smoking caterpillar, but by the end of the tea she would not have been surprised to see an eleventh door open in the ceiling, tumbling down a set of stairs toward another thoroughly delightful tea party in the attic of the mind.

So, thought Alice, if she could dispense one piece of advice to her women friends, it would be this: Put your pickup truck in “park,” let the wood tumble where it may instead of stacking it neatly, and let the sheep shearing go for another day. Accept an invitation to “tea” if one presents itself -- or create a tea party of your own.

And then she thought of one more thing: If you’re lucky enough to be invited to “tea,” please leave your electronic gizmos at home -- they will be there long after these rare trips into a mini-wonderland of truly shared digressions, confessions and history lessons of the past are no more.