A Letter to Grandma

Dear Grandma Betty,

I hope I can maintain an honest assessment of who you were, and not get too wrapped up in memories seen through the milky windowpanes of linear time’s narrow corridor.

You wore your heart on your sleeve.  You told it the way you saw it and made no apologies.  You were born on July 31st.  You repeated yourself an awful lot, and passed that particular trait on to your son (my dad) and your grandson (me).  You liked taking people out to lunch.  And you liked to talk…….a lot.

I remember meeting you for the first time.  The pine boughs were swaying in the wind and it was summer when you came to the little house with the wood stove in the Oregon countryside, where my mom and I lived for 4 years and I rode my bicycle to school.  Your voice with its syrupy southern accent – and your spirited personality – seemed so huge to me that I thought I felt the house shake through the soles of my worn-out sneakers.

But the biggest parts of you were your heart and your stubbornness.  I didn’t know anything about you yet back then, but I could see right away that you were ruled by your heart, because of the way you were so kind to my mom.  I was protective of her, and so I watched, and I listened.

It must be nice to have set down your suitcase of earthly burdens, grandma, but I miss your stories.  I miss your grouchiness, your laugh, the way you pronounced hurricane ‘herrican’.  The way you always used southern colloquialisms like ‘he was mean as a snake’ or ‘that girl would argue with a fence post’.

Sometimes a weariness comes over me when I think of loved ones lost.  There are so, so many.  And yet in a way, they’re all still here, they’re all….close.  So I’ll say to you what I’ve said to them all, in one way or another, over the years:

to all those I love, and have loved, on either side of the transcendental veil – may my love be a lantern to help light your way.  And may yours help me light mine.

Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House I Went

I grew up with a dairy allergy, a hardcore vegetarian/raw food advocate mom who juiced her own wheatgrass and fermented her own probiotic drinks, and no TV.  Books, cats, the outdoors, an occasional friend who didn’t think I was too weird, and an overactive imagination were my entertainment.  Once a week, mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all.  I’d lie around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks.  I ate soy cheese, Rice Dream, unstirred no-sugar peanut butter/honey/banana sandwiches, tofu, and granola with orange juice on it.  But this nerdy only-child hippie kid was perfectly content, man, because most weekends I went to Grandma’s house.  Grandma’s: where I could count on the fridge being well-stocked with a veritable plethora of meats, and the never-deviating placement of a hazy crystal bowl of candy near the record cabinet.

My grandma Ruth had everything my child’s mind deemed to be most important in life: Dr. Seuss books, a pool table, an eclectic collection of old country and trucker songs on 45′s (relics from my great-grandfather’s jukebox distribution business), and a TV.  She would fry up kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausage), give me liverwurst for lunch, and serve me pot roast for dinner.  Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it, the davenport – and watch the tube, my scrawny bag of flesh exhausted from digesting so much animal protein in such a short amount of time.  I’m not certain how aware my mom was of this carnivorous debauchery. I think she knew, and allowed it, because she realized her little son was in dire need of some surf-and-turf (or as my uncle calls it, bait-and-bovine). Mom eventually began taking me out for an occasional hamburger, no doubt a result of my grandmother’s persuasion.

Grandma Ruth always had a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step.  She’d fix herself a martini, dance around in her robe to old records, and school me at billiards.  ”Not enough,” she’d typically comment, referring to my heinous lack of English applied to the cue ball.  Every so often I’d make a damn good shot, and she’d say “here’s lookin’ at you, kid”, calling me Straight Shooter McGee and other nonsensical nicknames. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot.  There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash in the shape of a candy bar that said “Baby Ruth” on it.  Sometimes she’d drink half a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, her snores rattling the walls.  When she glimpsed a mole in her yard she threw open the closet door and pulled out her shotgun. When contestants got greedy on Wheel of Fortune and then hit bankrupt, she’d say “serves you right, you dirty rat fink”.

Grandma would usually cook me an enormous Sunday breakfast and then drive me home in the yellow Porsche, stopping for hot chocolate on the way. And so I’d return to my meatless, T.V.less abode.  I didn’t mind though.  I loved my mom hugely; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair.  Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes.  I guess I didn’t exactly hate being the only hippie kid in a rinky-dink three-classroom rural school where the other boys’ idea of fun was to shove a firecracker up a dead gopher’s ass and then light it, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it was just downright irritating.

Growing up with such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef.  When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “food taster”.  One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I found myself home alone with it. I methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care.  Boy was I wrong.  Not to mention I puked on a shrub outside and it never grew back.

Strange Names

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare penned this question in Romeo and Juliet, and Rodney Dangerfield used it for one of his earliest comedy bits. No matter how strange or ordinary your name might be, it’s good to keep a sense of humor about it. Believe me, I know. I have a strange name. One of those names that inspires folks to think such thoughts as “boy, his parents must have had some really good drugs” or, in current English vernacular, “seriously?” Or, if texting, “wtf!”

My strange name is River Curls, and I’ve witnessed every conceivable reaction a person could have to it, from drunk islanders to urban hipsters, from eight-fingered redneck shop teachers to nonplussed X-generationers whose names are even weirder than mine, thanks to their hippied-out parents (i.e. Freedom, Rainbow, or Freekus Polikus).

In grade school there were the chuckles during roll call, and the rejection from certain groups based on “name-weirdness”: the everyday cruel behavior we all possess and sometimes demonstrate early on. This caused me to begin my development of two things at once – a thick skin, and a profound hatred of anything that drew attention to names: name tags, roll calls, chalkboard lists. If any of the other kids despised their names, they were no match for me. I felt singled out by the wide gap my name drew between me and all the Johns, Jeffs, Adams and Rogers.

High school was no gift either. My name prevented any and all hope of fitting in, being thought of as normal, or, way more importantly, being cool. Though I likely would have excelled in sports, I veered away from them so I wouldn’t ever again have to hear a coach misspeak my name as they always seemed to do (“get back in there, Rivers!”) or use my last name while reprimanding me with the zest of a drill sergeant (“Goddamnit, Curls!”) I retreated more and more into books, movies, and music. With one really close friend, I discovered how to comfortably exist beyond the margins of every defined social group. Together we bonded with our English Lit teacher, diving into poetry, Shakespeare, and creative writing.

The name River isn’t all that unusual, but its pairing with the name Curls pushes it into strange territory. And as with every name, the two words each have their own backstory. Curles (with an e) is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon name “Curl”, or “Corliss”. Families bearing the name Curles can be found primarily in Wales and England, but there are a few in Scotland as well. In the United States the name is mostly found in Georgia, where my grandfather on my dad’s side is originally from. According to my grandfather “some old bastard decided to drop the letter e”, leaving my bald family with a spelling that – in a cruel twist of fate – conjures up images of hair and hairdressers.

My mom named me after the Kilchis river, near Tillamook: a town on the Oregon coast. The shack where I was born sat close to the river’s edge. It’s gone now, but the river is still there, flowing from the Coast Range down into the Pacific.

And then there’s my middle name, but that’s another story.

 

Impaled Digits

Growing up, I had the privilege of enduring several ingrown toenail surgeries, which culminated in having a third of the nail removed on each of my big toes.  Of course, by that time I was reading a magazine and whistling to myself while blood spurted across the room like a Monty Python skit.  Yet I was not always the stoic Sam Elliott of toenail surgeries that the doctor saw before him that day.  I had journeyed down a long and excruciating road of impaled digits.  I had paid my dues.

The first time I had it done, I yowled like a cat in heat right from the git-go.  My dad – sitting on the other side of a drawn curtain – passed out cold.  The doctor was administering the shot to numb my toe when, THUNK!, something hit the floor.  The “something” turned out to be dad’s head.  Thinking he may have had a heart attack or something, both the doctor and nurse raced to his side, leaving the syringe sticking out of my toe and the needle buried.  Next thing I knew, they had placed him on a stretcher, wheeled him over alongside me, and deduced that he had simply passed out while listening to his son – who had come to live with him for the school year – cry so damn pitifully.  I remember laughing about it for a minute before the doctor returned to my toe and began the extraction.  Tears of laughter turned to cries of pain – the kind of pain that makes you want to run wildly and throw yourself off a building.

When you have an ingrown toenail, the first step is to be in denial as long as possible.  “It’s not an ingrown toenail,” you tell yourself as you carefully un-stick the fabric of your sock from the nasty red infection on the corner of your toe and clean off the blood and pus.  Weeks later, when you can’t take it any longer (or someone steps on your foot, prompting you to wail like a banshee) you finally break down and go to the doctor.  “That’s an ingrown toenail,” he says, fully aware that you waited as long as humanly possible before coming in and having it removed.  “Why don’t you hop up on the table here?”

The first thing they do is soak your foot in that brackish, stinky, iodine-and-whatever-else water bath, to soften up your flesh.  Usually, as you sit there with your foot in the liquid, you quietly reflect on how screwed you are.  This is typically followed by cursing your family for passing along such a terrible hereditary trait.  The doctor then pulls out the needle to administer the numbing agent.  The needle always seems awfully long, considering it’s about to penetrate one of your “little piggies”.  You’re tempted to ask if he’s sure he’s got the right needle, but the pain of the injection derails any thoughts half-thunk, as your toe feels like it’s been placed in a vice operated by a mobster you owe money to.  Then, while your toe numbs, the doctor chats lightly with the nurse while at the same time producing a few slender silver weapons of toe destruction.  You look away, doomed.

Now begins the surgery proper, and the pain is so excruciatingly sharp that your first silent mental scream is “I thought you numbed my effing toe!”  Somehow you get through it, though, and they bandage it up, and show you the nail before they dispose of it – a sort of medical “treat” I guess.  You leave the office with your foot in an over-sized slipper, because cramming it into a shoe is out of the question.  You’ve never tread so gingerly in your life.  And for a few days you hope – oh, GOD do you hope – that nobody steps on your foot.

 

 

The Letter

As a kid I learned how to steal candy without anyone seeing, and, on more honest days,
how to buy the most candy with the least amount of loose change.  I learned how to build a fire, how to walk the railroad tracks, how to knock off a list of Saturday chores in record time.
I knew when there were maggots in something by the smell.  I knew life was good when the corn was high.  I could tell by the mood of the grownups.

My hand still remembers writing its first love letter in awkward sprawling cursive,
and my legs remember riding my bike six miles over flat prairie roads to slip it into your mailbox, put the flag up, and streak away like a scared bunny, pedaling madly,
heart banging, summer skin dripping, so naively unprepared for the rush.

Your totally straight parents must have hated that: the only hippie kid from the tiny local schoolhouse (complete with rainbow suspenders and a bowl haircut) professing his newly-discovered timeless love for their daughter, via annoyingly-poetic bad penmanship.  It was an unpleasant little trick for them, I’m sure, like eating peeled grapes while blindfolded, and being told they’re eyeballs.

 

Cactus

Then there was the time we sat holding hands, our backs pressed against the wrinkled trunk of an oak tree like a bent grandfather, watching the night submit to unchangeable ways, seeing the sun come up for the very first time.

At the not-careful age of whatever-it-was, we knew we’d really seen something – a first glimpse into the exhilarating stillness of the world, away from the expectations of all the adults, away from the blah-blah-blah of other kids.  And a first glimpse of the fire that could not much longer be contained, binding us to our bodies ever after.

We shared those first moments in that faded blue sleeping bag, and then sitting at the foot of that tree, with a sunrise carefully designed to tremble our worlds with feelings we didn’t even know existed.

Not long after, your parents moved away, and you with them.  That’s when I began to think of love as a cactus.  It looks cool, but if you touch it yer gonna bleed.

Hearthstone

Sure, wipe your face with the damp cloth of desperation, you’re human.  But then toss it away and allow your cheeks to dry, at least for awhile.  Ladle stew into your ceramic bowl, violet as dusk, pull your chair near the fire.

Look into memory as if opening the door to a room in a house of your own lost childhood.  Don’t be afraid.  Just observe with the will of an explorer, the daring of an athlete, the surrender of an artist.  Leaf through the pages of the story.  Your memories, heart, name.  The shape of your clay.

Allow the memories to be memories, allow the heart to absolve itself, learn the meaning of your own name.  Allow clay to be reshaped.  Tether yourself to the tree that is truth to you.