Maia Madden

Book Author, Journalist, Blogger

Archive for the tag “children”

My Father’s Chicken Marengo

Image 2My 88-year-old father is making Chicken Marengo for me. He has made it many times before, but these days it is a labor of love, effort and infinite patience. I watch as he slowly debones and slices the chicken thighs, his head stooped over so he can see.

“Why didn’t you buy boneless thighs?” I ask.

“I couldn’t find them,” he answers, with that quiet, resigned smile he uses so often now.

I don’t know if he means the store didn’t have any or he couldn’t find where they were. Shopping is a daily ritual for Pavle, one that can take several hours, and the meat and produce he sometimes forgets disintegrate in the refrigerator until someone throws them out without a whisper of the deed.

I offer to help, but Dad says he doesn’t need any help. He tells me to go outside and relax, as if I could when I know he is sweating in the kitchen alone.

In Denver today, the temperature reached 100 degrees, and in the cramped kitchen, it is still 100 degrees even though it is past seven. My father doesn’t believe in air conditioning. Actually, he doesn’t believe in home improvement of any kind.

The screens are ripped. The carpets are stained and shredded. The wallpaper is peeling in every corner. The curtains sag from one or two stalwart rings, while the rest of the fabric hangs like a sail from a broken mast.

And yet Pavle is the most elegant man I know, even at his age. He wears dark slacks and a pressed collared shirt every day, often with a cravat tucked in at the neck. He doesn’t own a pair of jeans or shorts, and his white hair is carefully combed back from his high forehead. He has always been a handsome, well-groomed man. How is it possible that someone so formal and meticulous with his person can tolerate such abysmal surroundings? Maybe because people are full of contradictions. Or maybe because many men without women lose their sense of order.

To get to the garden, I must pass through what used to be an enclosed porch but is now a wasteland of junk and broken furniture. Around the outside patio, huge untrimmed juniper bushes hide the balding lawn below, where mushrooms sprout with abandon. The patio chairs are torn or sagging. The white siding on the house looks gray, and the wooden roof shingles are all askew, just waiting for the perfect storm to fly far, far away.

Which I will do in a week, leaving the scene of a disaster that would make my deceased mother, a lover of nature and beauty in all things, wail.

What became of her carefully tended flowerbeds?

Where has her beloved glass dining room table gone?

Pavle lives at that table, now buried under bills, papers, magazines, newspaper clippings, containers of nuts and random piles of crackers and cookies. Sometimes he sits at his computer writing his memoirs or trying to access his e-mail. Sometimes he scrutinizes his pile of junk mail as if it contained the secret to immortality. Helter-skelter files surround his feet and precarious bookshelves lean from the wall behind him, where an abstract oil painting has tilted up to the ceiling, caught by a wayward curtain.

In this dark room, the wrought-iron chandelier my mother found in Mexico is always on, but the ugly coils of low-energy bulbs have replaced the pink candle-shaped lights she favored, and their harsh, unforgiving glare intensifies the dusty chaos below.

Sensing that Pavle would enjoy my presence, and knowing how slowly he moves, I insist on coming inside to help him. I chop the garlic and parsley and boil and peel the tiny pearl onions as he sautés the chicken.

Both my brother and my nephew, who live with my father, have gone out this Saturday night, and the house is unusually calm and quiet. Outside, if I look up through the circle of trees at the waning silver light outlining the blue-gray clouds of a Colorado evening, I can almost imagine I have traveled back in time. I am still married, and my husband is pitching to one of the boys. The other children are shrieking as they slide down the Slip‘n Slide. My mother is cooking inside. My father is leading baby Malia around the patio by both hands, trying to teach her to walk.

Today is Malia’s nineteenth birthday.

As I set the patio table, I try to recall how Mom’s pink and white Iceland poppies swayed in the evening breeze. How her off-tune voice seeped through the open doors from the kitchen, where she sang in French as she cooked for her children and grandchildren.

Only the rhythmic hum of crickets and the poignant calls of birds remain the same, enduring talismans of those summer days. The rest is ruin and loss, neglect and decrepitude.

But in the kitchen, my 88-year-old father is alive, cooking Chicken Marengo, just for me.

I gauge his progress while I refill my wine glass. Here, wine is a necessity, a buffer against reality. It is still unbearably hot inside, and Pavle is trying to cool off with his second whiskey and soda. Meanwhile, the chicken and mushrooms are swimming in a broth that won’t reduce to a sauce, and he is worried.

“Stop worrying,” I tell him. “Sit down and let it reduce by itself.”

He has been standing for at least two hours, and he looks weary.

The kitchen is in shambles. Dad has left all of the drawers and cabinet doors open, and herbs, onion skins, utensils and dirty dishes litter the chipped brown Formica counters. As I clean, I try to imagine what this once-beautiful house might look like if anyone still cared.

When I am sure Pavle has gone back to his dining room headquarters, I sprinkle Wondra flour into the soupy broth and stir until it finally thickens. Through the kitchen door, I can see him hunched over the New York Times, munching on pita chips.

As requested, I make a plain green salad with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Anything else, he has told me, “just doesn’t go with Chicken Marengo.”

The baguette is already hardening in the dry air as I slice it. My father never eats a meal without bread, preferably warm. Maybe it’s bad for his health, but he is the one who is 88 and still reading the New York Times!

I shut off the television droning in the background for no one, and put on a Norah Jones CD. Her mellow voice fills the heated air. “I don’t miss you any more,” she sings, over and over again. The CD is a cheap copy and skips repeatedly. I think of my mother and my ex, my grandparents and my children, my friends and family scattered everywhere. I will always miss everyone who once mattered to me.

Norah sings, “What do you say when it’s all gone away?”

Nothing, I guess. There is nothing left to say.

“I’m starving, Dad!” I shout, knowing he is going deaf. When he doesn’t move, I feel bad and walk to him, then touch his shoulder gently and ask if he wants to eat. By now, it is dark and nearly nine.

“Yes, yes, darling,” he says, smiling that familiar, resigned half-smile as he rises painfully from his chair.

He makes his way ever so slowly across the family room and down to the patio as I add the olives and pearl onions to the perfect sauce, pour it into a bowl and top it with chopped parsley. The air outside has cooled, and we sit down together to eat.

Before we start, Pavle tells me his version of the history of Chicken Marengo. On June 14, 1800, Napoleon Bonaparte won a narrow victory over the Austrian troops occupying Italy on the Marengo Plain. While he was waiting for the second half of his troops to arrive, late due to his own geographical miscalculation, he got really hungry. He sent his soldiers out to forage for food in the surrounding villages. They found chicken, olives, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Napoleon’s chef was on fire that night and created Chicken Marengo.

Fortified by a full belly and a second-wave of soldiers, Napoleon beat back the Austrians.

When he finishes his tale, my father takes the first bite and says, “Don’t you think it’s a little too salty?”

“Maybe a teensy bit,” I answer after I swallow, surprised that his taste buds are still as sharp as his memory for stories. “But I love it the way it is.”

And I do. Yet, as I sit under the infinitude of stars on this warm summer night, what I love most is not the taste but the sense of my father’s love in every delicious bite of Chicken Marengo. The dish he has made, just for me.

PAVLE’S CHICKEN MARENGO

Image3 TBS oil
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, whole or in pieces
1 chopped onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 Bay leaves
1 TSP dry or fresh thyme
12-15 pearl onions or more, cooked and peeled
1 can chopped tomatoes or 5-6 fresh Roma tomatoes, chopped
1-3 cups sliced mushrooms
1 cup black olives
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
3 TBS tomato puree or paste
2-3 TBS (or more) of Wondra flour
½ cup fresh chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the onion until it is soft.
Brown the chicken in oil. Drain the fat before adding the chicken to the cooked onion.
Stir in herbs, broth, wine, garlic, tomatoes and tomato puree. Thicken with Wondra.
Add mushrooms and pearl onions and simmer for 30 minutes or until tender.
When the sauce has thickened, adjust seasonings and add the olives and parsley.

With due respect to my father, serve with whatever you think “goes” with the chicken!

And make sure to cook the dish with love for those who matter the most to you.

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In Praise of Mothers

IMG_3884I heard an awful story the other day. A mother, on her deathbed, whispered to her daughter, “You came into this world to make my life a living hell.” I cannot imagine how terrible that daughter must have felt, or just how cruel the woman who uttered those words had to be, with no chance to ask for forgiveness or to make amends.

As mothers, we have all made hasty and thoughtless comments to a vulnerable child. Perhaps we regretted it and later apologized. Perhaps we live with the memory, like a thorn in the heart. Or perhaps we don’t remember what we said at all because we were too busy doing a million other things. But the child always remembers.

My mother, who was unusually kind, once remarked that my new very short haircut looked like a Brillo pad (it was a terrible mistake for someone with curly hair…but the bleached greenish blonde disaster before it was even worse). I wore scarves for months, going for the gypsy look. Now when I see pictures of myself I think I actually looked kind of cute. The comment still hurts, though, even if I admire the young teenager who, on pure impulse one stifling day in New York City, let a student at Vidal Sassoon cut off all her hair.

But that impulsive streak has worked against me with my own children. I wish I could take back so many things I said and did. I am sure each of my children could tell a horror story or three that would bring tears to my eyes and a raw clenched feeling to my heart. And I am truly sorry for the damage done.

We mothers spend a lot of time feeling not good enough, no matter how much we do for our kids. We drive them to piano and swimming and soccer and gymnastics. We arrange play dates and overnights and birthday parties. We take them on family vacations and read to them every night. We cook their favorite foods and get up at dawn to pack their lunches. When my first son told me he hardly remembered anything before he was ten, I was shocked. All that work for nothing?

But I don’t really care if they remember or not, or if they thank me or not. When they were happy, I was happy, and I never thought of those duties as sacrifices. They were blessings because they gave my life meaning. I am convinced that what you do for and with your children makes them better people. The trouble starts when you do too much and expect too much, packing their days with so many activities that you rob them of dream time. I was guilty of that at the beginning, but by child number five I had realized that trying to mold children into society’s model of perfection — studious, attractive, athletic, artistic and ambitious — was misguided and usually backfired. After all, we didn’t order them from a catalog, and they didn’t come with instructions.

When my youngest said “no thank you” to soccer, ballet and piano, I admit I was relieved. She liked to read and write in her journal and play in her room. Nevertheless, I did feel a wee bit guilty, as if it were my fault for not encouraging her enough.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, but if you are a mother, every day is mother’s day, whether you are lauded or not. Of course you make mistakes. Sometimes you nag. Sometimes you say the wrong thing and hurt a young soul without realizing it. Sometimes you over-schedule your child and create anxiety rather than pleasure. Sometimes your children do put you through hell. But if you love them, and if they feel it, you have done your best at a very difficult job. And in the end, knowing that you loved and were loved is all that really matters.

Divorcing My Home

IMG_1901Once upon a time, I lived in the house of my dreams. Built in 1905, it was a beautiful Victorian in San Francisco on a shady street just a block away from a gym, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a hardware store, three cafes and several restaurants. My ex-husband and I moved in when our middle child was just a few weeks old. The kitchen had no refrigerator and the stove was an ancient Wedgewood with a tiny oven, but we were in love with that house. I remember sitting on the front stairs with him before the sale had even closed, holding hands. It was everything we had ever wanted.

Fourteen years and two more children later, we divorced.

By then, we had remodeled the house, adding bedrooms and bathrooms and a family room, tearing down walls and revamping the kitchen twice. After the earthquake of 1989, we even redid the entire foundation. That house had been a labor of love, and I was determined to keep it.

In the divorce settlement, I did get the house, but nothing had prepared me for the task of maintaining it by myself. When the family room flooded or the roof needed replacing or the garage door got stuck, I would panic. I had no problem, however, doing the little things: unplugging toilets and drains, mowing the tiny lawn, planting bulbs and flowers, cleaning the pond and the hot tub, replacing clogged tubing in the watering system. As for that supposedly burdensome job so many guys neglect or gripe about, putting out the garbage once a week, what a joke! Compared to cooking and cleaning and driving, compared to shopping, making lunches and washing clothes, it was nothing at all.

I had lost a husband and a united family, but I was determined that my children would not lose the comfort and warmth of the home they loved. Like a stranger in my own house, I would roam from room to room trying to figure out what I had done wrong. Wherever I went, I would see my ex: meditating in our bedroom; lying on the floor reading The Chronicles of Narnia out loud to our children; practicing his Aikido and sword sets in the back yard; watching football with the boys in the family room; laughing and telling silly jokes at dinner, which we shared as a family every night, often joined by our children’s friends who just happened to drop by right at dinner time. I always thought he was happy. Perhaps I had been wrong. I will never know. But now my ex-husband was a ghost who filled every space with waves of sadness.

So I decided to repaint. Instead of a soft white, I picked bold warm colors I would never have thought of using before: a russet wall surrounding the fireplace, a bright yellow family room, a lilac blue bedroom. I even bought a red sofa bed for my little office. Since he had taken the oil paintings with him, I hung colorful framed posters and Mexican art everywhere, with a huge Indonesian wood mirror above the couch and a candle-lit wrought-iron chandelier above the dining room table.

Late one manic night, I had turned the dining room into the living room by dragging each heavy piece of furniture by myself from one room to the other.  Bringing platters of food through the living room to the very front of the house was awkward and impractical, but it was different. And different, I thought, would help me forget.

But no matter what I did to erase the past and make the house mine, I couldn’t get rid of the memories of us. I couldn’t banish his invisible presence. Not that it stopped me from trying. I loved my house, and I thought nothing could make me divorce it.

I refinanced four times in six years, taking out more and more money just to keep going, watching both my mortgage payments and my expenses increase as my finances dwindled.

After the divorce, a friend had made a drawing showing me staring out through the bars of a second-floor window. I had become a prisoner in my own home.

Of course, reality finally sank in: I could not afford to stay in my beloved home. I remember my children’s sad expressions when I told them we would have to move. They were losing the last connection to the family we once were.

The market was dropping precipitously, and I readied myself for a quick sale. People trounced through on weekends, or disturbed our dinners, or made rude comments that made me want to punch them.  No offers came.

I refinanced again, waited a month, and got a different agent. Still nothing.

“You’re holding on too tightly,” said the same friend who had drawn the picture. “Everyone who comes through the door can tell you don’t want to let go.”

Let go? I thought I already had. The house was for sale, wasn’t it?  No, it was the bad divorce vibes that were poisoning the air and turning off buyers. To clear the negative energy, I paid a shaman to walk from room to room muttering prayers and waving a smoking bundle of sage. My East Coast friends thought I had lost my mind. It was sooooooo California.

Two months went by. One day my agent took me aside and, as gently as she could, suggested I move out so they could stage my home. I could tell she wanted to say much more but didn’t want to hurt my fragile feelings. Reluctantly, I rented a small house on a lagoon in Marin County and moved. A month later, the house sold.

A part of my soul still lives in that house. Even after it was gutted and turned into something unrecognizable, I pine for it.  Even though I hate the cold and foggy San Francisco summers, I would give anything to live there again. In the many dreams I have of my old home, I am searching everywhere for something: a child, usually, or a secret, or a forbidden gift. I never find whatever it is I have lost.

Every time I go to San Francisco, I feel compelled to drive by my house. Sometimes I park in my old neighborhood and buy Brie and aged Gouda from my favorite cheese store or a baguette and a French apple tart from the bakery-cafe across the street. Sometimes I sit there at a little outside table nursing an espresso and staring at my lost home’s taupe facade, the only part of it left intact. The tall red maples I planted on either side of the driveway thinking they were miniature Japanese maples now reach the second story.  That makes me smile. And when I have the courage, I walk to the sidewalk in front of my house and read the names etched into the concrete, the names of seven people who used to be a family.

 

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Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

mfourlbyhfourepoetry

p 1 o 2 e 3 m = Four By 4 By Four

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