Monday, October 25, 2021

Ode to an Entenmann’s Walnut Ring

The minute anyone entered my mother's Bronx apartment, she would put on the kettle, so everyone could enjoy a nice hot cup of tea. Nothing fancy: just a Lipton or Tetley tea bag in the mug. I never saw loose leaf tea as a child. I would not have known what it was. 

Tea was served with milk and sugar or Sweet'N Low. The odious pink packet was penance for what invariably was eaten with the tea: a sweet treat. Tea and dessert made people feel welcome in your home. Not offering it was just plain rude. Hopefully a seven layer cake from the local bakery, rich with chocolate frosting. But at least a slice of an Entenmann's walnut coffee ring or crumb bun. 

Entenmann's was always on hand. My female relatives did not see the point of home baking. Who had time for sifting and whisking? There was cooking and cleaning and gardening, needlework and crocheting, not to mention a job at Alexander's Department Store (my grandmother) and the Pelham Manor Village Hall (my mother).

Entenmann's cakes, bought at the A & P, had the whiff of fanciness. The script font seemed old fashioned and proper, the blue and white box classy. The company was founded by a German immigrant in Brooklyn in 1898, and, by midcentury, famous fans such as Frank Sinatra ordered the Crumb Coffee Cake weekly. Their products stayed fresh longer than bakery cakes, thanks to the magic of preservatives, not that anything hung around long enough to become stale in my family. My grandmother loved cake and bread, and we all inherited her tastes.

I must admit that I have hardly been loyal to Entenmann's. I don't stock their treats in my kitchen. My wonderful 18-year-old daughter, Violet, loves to bake, and especially during the pandemic, we've whipped up a steady stream of delicious cookies, cakes, and pastries that pair well with a nice cup of tea. Violet enjoys the challenge of the recipes in Claire Saffitz's book Dessert Person. Raised on Entenmann’s, I find the Saffitz approach unnecessarily grueling. But I like to spend time with Violet, and I like to see her happy. So I’m in for any crazily complicated baking project she wants. We spent an entire Sunday on Saffitz's sadistic instructions for an impossible tower of cream puffs called Crouquembouche, a truly insane endeavor, the directions for which include the disclaimer "Godspeed." Between making the cream puffs, the creme patisserie and the caramel, not to mention constructing the tower...let's just say the mood in the kitchen became tense.

A baking hiatus ensued. During this time, I noticed in the Acme flyer that Entenmann's products were on sale. I thought longingly of my mother, who died in April 2020. Maybe I'd get the walnut ring and brew some milky tea, sweetened with honey, and enjoy a slice like we used to. But sadly, the walnut ring proved elusive. It wasn't available at the supermarket or on the Entenmann's website.

My daughter knew of my sudden desire for Entenmann’s, so on Mother's Day, she presented me with two of their products. The limited edition Lemon Loaf was light and delish, although a more robust crust would improve it. My mother added strawberries and whipped cream to the plain Loaf Cake to make Strawberry Shortcake. She’d also top toasted slices of the cake with scoops of Neapolitan ice cream. That’s the kind of baking I’m most comfortable with. 

The Cheese Buns were fine, if a bit light on cheese. They do make me even more nostalgic for the walnut ring, a glazed cake with a cinnamony filling, studded with raisins and walnuts. It was always hard to resist picking off all the best parts. 

Searching for the walnut ring, I landed on the Entenmann’s Facebook page, where I found a 2014 post confirming the sad news that the Walnut Danish Ring had been discontinued. Customers made their displeasure known. “You people are seriously messing up,” posted Billy Dello Russo.  I wish they’d bring it back. 

I could really go for a slice, sitting with my mom at the table in our breakfast nook. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

May her memory be a blessing

 A year ago today, at about this time, the phone rang. It was a woman calling my house from the hospital. "I don't have any information," she said quickly. "I'm one of the chaplains."

I immediately began to cry. "Thank you," I said.  I sat down on my unmade bed.

"I'm glad I called," she said. "I saw that your mother was having comfort measures only, and I thought a ringing phone in the hospital room might be an annoyance." 

I told her I had finally, after more than a month, been allowed to see my mother the previous day. For 15 minutes.The chaplain assured me that my mother had received The Last Rites, over the phone, and that the pope had said that would count. Or was it the bishop? I don't remember. 

A man had called earlier from the hospital asking if she would like The Last Rites, and I had said she would, and I had told my mother over the phone that she would receive them. "Good," she said. "I don't want to be thrown our of heaven too."

On the phone now with this chaplain, I cried my eyes out. I barely said a word, and she prayed with me as I sobbed. The Hail Mary, maybe? The Lord's Prayer? It's all a blur. I didn't absorb her name, but I will always be so grateful to her.

Not long after, the doctor called me to tell me my mother had died. I thanked her for getting me in to see my mother, and then asked what would happen now. She said I should call the funeral home. My cousin, thankfully, is a funeral director. I called him and he took care of the small burial ceremony that was allowed in the midst of the pandemic.

A year today. Time doesn't make sense the way it used do, now that my mother had to die alone. A month, or a week, or ten years: all would seem just as accurate. 

When she first died, some friends wrote to me: "May her memory be a blessing." It's such a nice thought. Someday, I suppose, it could be true. I see that her life was a blessing. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Saying goodbye to my mother

At the end, there was only a piece of paper with my phone number on it. 

"I need to hold onto this," my mom said. "Or I won't know how to call you." Her cell phone battery had died, and she didn't bring the charger when the nursing home sent her to the hospital in an ambulance because she had fluid outside of her lungs.

My heart seized. I told her not to worry. I told her the nurses would be able to reach me. "Or I will call you," I said. 

Was that our last conversation? Or was it the one when the phone rang in the evening? "Chrissy," she asked, in a panic. "Why am I still here? They are keeping me locked in a room. No one is explaining anything to me! And they are trying to put something in my I.V.!!! What are they putting in my I.V.?"

I asked to speak to the nurse. They were administering a dose of dilaudid, to relax her, she said. The nurse gave the phone back to my mother. 

"I am working with the hospice agency to bring you to us," I said. "You have to be patient." The agency had not finished processing whatever it was they needed to process. So many forms. 

"Okay, Chicken," she said. 

Chicken. She hadn't called me that in years, maybe. That was her pet name for me when I was a child. I also call my children Chicken. 

"I love you," I said. I wished so much that I could be there, holding her hand, and not in my house in New Jersey, watching Little Fires Everywhere.

My mother was in a hospital in Connecticut, dying alone. Dying of cancer, utterly on her own because of the coronavirus. I hated the virus that deprived her of visitors. She'd been ill for over a decade, first with lymphoma, then with circulatory problems that led to toe amputations, then with multiple myeloma, which the doctors said was in remission. There had been so many medical appointments, hospitalizations, days and weeks of feeling very sick. She'd lived alone for the whole time. 

It was late April and she had not seen me, my brother or any family since March 20, when because of  pain so severe she could not walk, she temporarily checked into an assisted living facility near my brother's house in Norwalk, Connecticut. She hated the assisted living and one morning called me at 5 to tell me that she had gotten stuck in the bed. They were not allowing visitors because of the godforsaken virus. She wanted out. Ten days later, she was found unresponsive and the staff nurse, suspecting a stroke, had called for an ambulance. The emergency room doctor asked me about whether she should be intubated, what her wishes were, that she likely had corona, that her chances of survival were very low. That if it was his mother he would not put her on a ventilator.

A little later, he called me back. My mother was doing a bit better. They would not need to intubate her. "I asked her what she would want," said the doctor. "She doesn't want any tubes. Also, she said that you think that you are the boss, but she's the boss."

That sounds like her.

Last summer, I started meeting her at every doctor's appointment. She would take a car service from City Island into Weill Cornell in Manhattan, and I would board some combination of trains and buses from New Jersey.  In July, she had Mohs surgery on a very large squamous cell cancer lesion on her forearm. It was an all day appointment, pretty traumatizing, as the surgeon left her with me in a room long enough that she bled profusely on the floor. I stayed with her in City Island that night. Then there was a series of appointments related to a clogged subclavian artery. And also the primary care physician and the oncologist. Usually we had at least one, sometimes two appointments per week. It was exhausting. And nothing seemed to help her feel better. 

I felt a constant weight of guilt and shame. My mother lived a little over an hour from me, but since I don't drive on the highway, I did not visit her nearly as much as I wanted to, as I should have, as she needed me to. We'd tried to lure her to New Jersey, but she loved her view of the water and the boats, and she loved being near her brother and in the area where she had always lived. 

"You're the one who left," she told me once during a heated discussion, in which I was trying to convince her to move closer so I could take care of her. 

I was. The one. Who left. 

So easy, it would have been, to buy a house in Pelham, the Westchester town where she lived. "I'd like you to live near me," she had said. "So I can be involved." 

It was 18 years ago when we decided, instead, to settle with our 18-month old son in Montclair. A house built in 1897 that came with a century-old piano in its own room. This was the room in which we were planning to set up her hospital equipment. She had a newly discovered tumor in her lungs, something in her liver that suggested it had metastasized, and just for good measure, several pulmonary embolisms. Also the fluid that made it hard for her to breathe. The doctors said it could be weeks or months.

The morning after the Chicken conversation, I tried to call my mom's room. No one would answer. I called the social worker to see what was happening with getting my mom moved. "The doctor has an update for you," she said.

Shortly after, the doctor called. I had never laid eyes on her. After so many doctor's appointments, this one, the last one, I'd not met.

She said my mother had taken a turn. It would not be months, or weeks, but days. 

"Are we able to see her?" I asked, sobbing. Yes, she said. They had just changed the rules, and I could come in for a 15-minute opportunity to say goodbye. We got right in the car. 

No traffic because of the pandemic. As we neared the hospital, the nursing supervisor called me. I was to wear a mask, go to the desk, and someone would come get me. I was to gown up, scrub up, glove up.

This hospital was deserted. The guard took my temperature. It was 97. The receptionist was wearing a leopard mask. A nurse collected me, delivered me. Another nurse helped me with the blue gown, two more masks, gloves. I went in.

The room was tiny. At least it had a window. 

My mother lay in the bed, out of it. Her legs were uncovered. Her eyes were open,  a beautiful light green, but did she see me? "Hi, Mama," I said. "It's me. I love you." I kept repeating some variation of this. She put out her hand, and I took it. I was not sure if I was allowed to. I should have hugged her. Why didn't I hug her? 

I thought to write this before, but I could not make my thoughts go in a straight line. And maybe no one wants to read this. But I finally put it down because I don't want to forget. Everyone says remember the good times. 

But it is also important to bear witness to the worst, worst times. 

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Hello faithful readers

Thank you for still checking this woefully neglected blog. I would like to invite you to read this post I wrote the other day on Medium. It is about emptying my mother's apartment after she died.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Quarantine Bitch: A Haiku Story

#1: Amazon Fresh

Delivery time!
Conflict: My Zoom yoga class
Knee hurts anyway

#2: Wiping The Food

Disinfecting groceries
Is not very fun
I'll make my husband do it

#3: Cat Vomit

Wonder how I hurt my knee?
Squatted down to clean
A big cat hairball

#4: AARP Magazine

Or maybe it was because
I decided to try
Some old people exercise

#5: RSVP

I cannot attend
The virtual happy hour
I'd have to shower

#6: Endless cooking

College-aged son home
Needs: 6000 calories
Eaten while gaming

#7: Lunch

What fresh hell is this?
We are out of salad greens
Guess I'll eat these chips

#8: Master project

Productive people
have a quarantine project
I prefer not to

#9: Masks

Have two pretty masks
Cannot breathe in either one
Best to stay at home

#10: Nothing

"What's your plan today?"
asks my beloved husband
Same as yesterday

#11: Recipe Fail

New York Times Cooking!
Your Braised White Beans recipe?
No one would eat it

#12: Old

I'd been wondering
How I would look with gray hair
I have my answer

#13: Truth

My mom's in rehab
She was in the hospital
Severe pneumonia

#14: Alone
I can't visit her
I can't hold my mother's hand
She is all alone

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

I am obsessed with Better Things and we need more shows like it

The third season of Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things started February 28, and it’s exciting to have new episodes of the one show on tv that tells the story of a woman in her fifties. I just wish it wasn’t the only one.

Better Things means so much to me, because although I love a family drama, such as Parenthood, and also a melodrama, such as This is Us, and to a lesser degree, a comedy, such as Modern Family, those shows aren’t anything like real life. I enjoy watching Gilmore Girls with my 16-year-old daughter as well, but, let’s be honest, that is pure unadulterated fantasy of idyllic mother/daughter relations. And also, none of the above portray what life is like for women my age. No movies do it, either. It’s not news that in Hollywood, you can either be young and dewy, a mature 40-year-old plumped up with injectables, or a granny. Women in their fifties are all but invisible, unless someone wants to make a dumb joke about hot flashes.

Adlon called Better Things a comedy in an interview in The New Yorker, but though there are funny moments, I don’t think comedy is what drives the show. Each episode is like a day or a week in a life of a cool fifty-something single mother of three daughters who is also working as an actress and constantly cooking delicious looking, elaborate meals for her family and many hip friends. It’s a poetic collection of vignettes of all the things I, a 57-year-old mother of two with a sputtering career, have been going through. Oldest child heading off to college, check. Menopause, check. Aging eccentric mother, check. Colonoscopy, check. Grandma having another fender bender, check.

Created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K., who left after the second season for obvious reasons, the show draws on Adlon’s life as a single parent of three daughters whose own mother lives next to her, just like on the show.  “Sam Fox is me in a cape,” Adlon told Terry Gross in her interview for Fresh Air.

As far as I am concerned, Pamela Adlon is Pamela Adlon in a cape. She is a superhero to me because she has managed to so accurately and sensitively and dare I say, sweetly, capture the essence of what it is to be a woman in the sixth decade of life, dealing with all the stresses and irritations and yes, joys. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for something, anything, that showed a woman of my generation having the life experiences I am having, until this show came along.

Sam is so real because she doesn’t always handle challenges perfectly. Her mom, Phil, really pushes her buttons. (Fun aside: all the women in this family have traditionally male names; the daughters are Max, Frankie and Duke.)  Phil is a handful; she gardens naked, makes tactless comments and is a hoarder with some cognitive issues. Duke, the baby, says to Sam: “Mom, no offense, but you’re kind of mean to Gran.” It’s true. Sam can be out and out horrible to her mother. Towards the end of season one, Sam, with breathtaking cruelty, decides not to take Phil away for the weekend after all, just as they are exiting the driveway with suitcases in the back. As Phil briskly returns to her house, Sam sits in the car. “I suck as a daughter,” she says. “I suck as a mother.” Oh, honey, I’d like to judge but I can’t. Because I’ve been there.

And dear God, the kids. Max, the oldest, screams “I hate you” at her mom, voice shaking furiously, with realistic regularity. (The bit part of Max’s friend, the evocatively named Defiance, was played by Adlon’s oldest daughter Odessa.) Frankie is rude and has some typical middle child issues. Duke, the baby, is the sweetest, but even she, in a game of Truth or Dare, makes one friend scream “penis!” in the middle of her mother’s party, and forces another to put a Monopoly hotel in a place that a Monopoly hotel should never go. (I didn’t think that particular scene was necessary, and I’m just going to go ahead and assume that that was Louis C.K.’s doing. I will say that what I’ve seen of Season 3 has less of the sometimes gratuitous raunchiness of the first two seasons.)

So the kids do the things kids do, like announcing an immediate need for a “dress from the forties” minutes before it’s time to leave for school. Sometimes, Sam gets it right, but she also falters as a parent, because she’s human. During a party, Sam asks Frankie, “where’s your sister?” Frankie inquires “which one?” Sam’s answer, “The shitty one,” is not exactly straight from a parenting handbook. But it’s hilarious. When Frankie gets in trouble for using the boys’ bathroom, Sam is mostly annoyed that she has to interrupt her day, a day that seems to have phone sex as its main objective, and it’s Max that enlightens her that the matter needs her attention. “Mom,” says Max. “Frankie’s a boy.” Sam sinks to a bench in the kitchen, cluelessness giving way to realization.

We see Sam noticing the changes to her body, a slight thickening of the mid-section and the “I feel bad about my neck” issues that Nora Ephron elucidated in her writing years ago. Yet the physical signs that she has spent five decades on this earth are secondary to what’s really important. After Max frets that she’s been wasting time getting high and being social and doesn’t have an idea of what she’ll do with her life, Sam has the perfect response. She lets her know that she’ll figure out her purpose, but even if she doesn’t, that’s ok. “You’re still going to love your life,” she says, “because life is good.”

Adlon is at her best when she depicts the small miracles that will emerge from the chaos of daily responsibilities when you least expect them. A word of wisdom from a homeless woman, real talk with an elderly widower, a well timed fart from Phil that gets Sam out of answering Frankie’s question of why she divorced her dad.  These moments even show up for we women in our fifties. As Sam says sort of inappropriately when she gives a talk at a “Women and Girls Empowerment Day” at Frankie’s school: “We all bleed and we all suffer and the bleeding stops and we still suffer.” We exist. As the kids say, “representation matters” and we want to “feel seen.” So please put us in more tv shows.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Home renovations and life lessons from a 107-year-old

Yesterday was a little bit of a tough day for me. We are doing a necessary electrical upgrade in our 121-year-old house. We have to replace the old fashioned “knob and tube” wiring which was installed in 1900 and which is still in a good part of the house. It works fine! But apparently it’s not “up to code” according to whoever decides these things. Someday, when we want to sell our house, we will have to replace it, or no one will buy it, say all the realtors and basically everyone. Since I wanted to paint some rooms, my husband insisted that now is the time to deal with this disruptive work. I am so annoyed, because in my mind, nothing put in today will last as long as the wiring that was installed 117 years ago and still works! But what do I know?

A team of electricians is all up in my space, sporadically turning off the power and internet when I need it most. And the work they do is loud. Super distracting. The cats are scared. The electricians took out my beautiful antique brass switch plates, original to the house, and put in some gross plastic ones. Sometimes, one of them will say “uh oh” and they will all gather around, which is rather disconcerting. Today one of them got their arm stuck in a hole in the ceiling and I was very stressed out! I am a mom. And they keep going to the bathroom and talking about how much they are going to the bathroom.

So yeah, I am super cranky about my first world problems. I was grumbling about the dust until bedtime, when I read this lovely article in The New York Times about Anthony Mancinelli, a 107-year-old man who still works full time as a barber! 107! He is almost as old as my wiring. When he became a barber, barbers still did medical procedures, like treat high blood pressure with leeches and burn off warts. He drives himself to work, does his own shopping and cooking and works on his feet all day. He doesn’t take any daily medicines, and he says he feels great. He still misses his wife of 70 years,who died 14 years ago, and he visits her grave daily.

I love this man! He reminds me of Max Fisher’s barber father in Rushmore, my favorite movie of all time. I showed my daughter the article this morning, and she agrees with me that Mr. Mancinelli has discovered the secret of life. He found something he loves, and he does it every day. Today, when I was driving her to school, Violet mentioned a crossing guard who worked at her middle school and greeted her every day with a giant smile and kind words. The crossing guard not only got her safely across the street, she brightened Violet’s day and that of every other person that she saw each morning and afternoon. That’s another person, who, in my opinion, has found the secret of life. She loves her job and she spreads good will.

Thinking of her and Mr. Mancinelli, I smiled to myself all the way back from the high school drop off. I shouldn’t complain about the work being done in my house. I am lucky to have the house and the means to fix things that need to be fixed.