The Pink Stuff


Mom and me, 1991 in front of the Haida totem pole in Sausalito

My mother made the pink stuff for winter holidays. When I took over hosting the holiday meals and my mother asked what should I bring, I would say, “The pink stuff. Bring the pink stuff.”

I couldn’t remember its name.

I called it the pink stuff because it tasted pink—not cotton-candy-bubble-gum pink. But rose unfolding pink. It tasted great with turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and the warm spinach salad I made—a recipe I adapted from the Greens* cookbook. No hot bacon grease to wilt the spinach. Rather olive oil that had slowly been heated along with smashed garlic. Then there was the feta cheese and Greek olives and pine nuts.

We each were who we were with those dishes. Pink stuff and warm spinach salad.

My mother was not the cookies-baking-in-the-oven kind of mom. Though she loved cookies. And she loved crumbling saltine crackers into a glass of non-fat milk and eating it up with a spoon. It had to be non-fat milk, which had a blue cast to it. I referred to it as blue milk.

Whole milk she claimed was too rich. Blue milk was what she drank and crumbled saltine crackers into. During the last years of my father’s life, she shared her home with the stranger my father had become—a man who was disappearing into Alzheimer’s. I would visit and we would talk late at night as she spooned up the blue-milk-with-crumbled-saltine-crackers concoction. It brought her comfort.

She finally had to find him a home in a skilled nursing facility. It was a good one. But really, no one wants to end their days there. It’s kind of a waiting room where some go as they hover between what was their life, what has become their life, and where their days will end.

She taught me about loyalty.

My mother came as close to being a feminist as she could. She was encumbered by the teachings of her mother and the world she inhabited as a young woman.

That encumberance was often a grand canyon between us. Crossing that grand canyon took a leap of faith that she didn’t always have. I learned about that leap of faith from Jeanette and Sally, two older women I knew from my days with the Gray Panthers. We had great meals together. I learned new ideas for cooking from them, as they, by their presence and experience, gave me permission to womanup and be the woman I am.

But at holidays, it is my mother who visits my heart. It’s always unexpected, though it’s happened every year since she died.

For complicated reasons, I did not help clean out her apartment after she died. And so I did not get the recipe for the pink stuff. I know she used cherry Jello, cranberries, walnuts, and perhaps, cream cheese.

voteThough she did not completely embrace feminism, my mother would have voted for Hillary Clinton. She would have voted for her with gusto and been pissed, really, really pissed at the outcome. She knew about that grand canyon of limitations, even though she couldn’t take that leap of faith.

Is is almost fashionable to humiliate Hillary Clinton now for not becoming president—I will not use the word “lose.” Women have been humiliated throughout the history of our country when they have the audacity to leap over that grand canyon of limitations—limitations defined by tiny-hearted men and the women who depend on them for their power.

It took Russian intervention, Wikileaks, voter suppression, the FBI, and an antiquated institution that was incorporated into our country to protect slavery to keep her out of office. She wasn’t defeated. I say again, she won 3 million more votes than the man who represents the worst of what passes for manhood in our country.

For the sake of women like my mother who saw the grand canyon but could not leap, and for all the women who have been taking that leap throughout our history, it is time to stop abusing Hillary Clinton.

I don’t know why the pink stuff this year is mixed up with the betrayal that was this election. Perhaps it’s fear that all the work that has gone before was for naught. Even though she didn’t take the leap, my mother got to the precipice and wondered what could be. Without that, I might not have been able to take my own leap.

I feel like the old guard is dancing on the graves of women they are unworthy of. It’s a slap in the face. But this latest slap in the face is just that. A slap in the face. We’ve stood up to bullies before. We will do it again.

I’ve Googled and Googled, but to no avail. I cannot find the recipe that my mother turned into the pink stuff. I’ve come to accept that the absence of the pink stuff at my holiday table is out of respect for her. The dish missing from the table because it was her dish. Like her, it cannot be replaced or replicated.

*Greens is the Zen community vegetarian restaurant at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Beans and Meatballs and the Pink Stuff

My mother was not known for her cooking. She wasn’t a bad cook, she just approached it as she did her housekeeping—a duty for which she had no calling. One of her signature dishes was beans and meatballs.

My mother’s recipe for Beans and Meatballs
Soak a package of dried pinto beans for however long
Add the right amount of water, then turn up the heat ‘til the water boils
(Make sure you use a pot big enough for this)
You might want to turn the heat down to medium highish or so at this point
(Make sure you cover the pot)
Add salt and pepper to a pound of hamburger meat
Turn it into meatballs (whatever size you want)
Add the meatballs to the pot of beans
(Before the beans are done cooking)
Slather margarine on a piece of white bread
(Use Wonder bread if you can afford it)
Place the margarined bread on a plate and cover it with the beans and meatballs when the meat is cooked through.
Note: do not use butter. Butter tastes too rich.
(To emphasize what you mean by this, stick out your tongue as if to
show the coating of butter that lingers there, and say, “Bleah.”)

I can’t begin to tell you how satisfying this dish was on a cold, rainy night as we sat in front of the TV watching Captain Satellite.

My father was actually a better cook than was my mother. He would take over the duties when a strike or work drought left him at home while my mother worked. We would have hamburgers with walnuts mixed into the meat because—well because the walnuts were there and he thought it was an interesting idea. It was.

My mother’s mother had recipes galore. When she was in her nineties, living in a senior apartment (living by herself for the first time in her life), she boasted, “The manager says I keep my house better than most.”

But my mother—not so much. She had a wooden trivet emblazoned with the statement:

My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy.”

It hung on our kitchen wall. I don’t think it ever got used as a trivet.

My mother didn’t have a career so much as she had jobs outside the home—pink collar jobs that she hoped would catapult her into the world of power she imagined men had because they got to spend their days outside the home.

Those pink-collar jobs did not land her there because the power she imagined the men had—well, they didn’t really have it either.

I think what she was looking for was an expression of self. The workplace was not set up for that for either men or women.  But men did have a patriarchal power—women couldn’t get credit in their own name, for example, no matter whether they brought home a paycheck.

My grandmother never worked outside the home. Everyone thought that was just fine with her. The oldest of nine, she was matriarch to her siblings and their children. Family was everything to her I always heard.

When she turned 90, I recorded her life story. “I really wanted to be a telegrapher,” she told me. “But there were nine of us at home so I thought it was time I got out to the farm and set up house with John.” She was 18.

And so, with a vengeance, setting up house became her life’s work.

I think that was a recipe my grandmother gave to my mother—a recipe of sacrificing one’s selfhood for marriage, as if the choice were one or the other.

Because the recipe had been handed down to her, my mother advised me in my late teens that I should not know myself too well, or I would never be able to mold myself enough to marry someone.

Anyone who knew my mother is surprised when I tell this part of her story. She seemed so much her own person. And, she was. But somewhere, buried inside her, encoded on her DNA, was the belief that women had to sacrifice themselves if they wanted home and family—they had to disappear their heart’s and soul’s desires.

That was the heart of my conflict with my mother. She wanted more for her self, she admired me for striving for more for my self, but it scared her when I began to respond to my heart’s and soul’s desires.

I began to feel entitled to my self.

It was a not a recipe the family had ever tried before.

It was a conflict that reared its head just before she died; we did not resolve it. After seven years, there are moments I mourn that she did not, could not, give me her blessing before she left.

I think that might be the way it is between mother and daughter: we need her to bless the recipe we choose to follow.

The other dish my mother made that I loved was her Thanksgiving special—a dish I came to associate with Thanksgiving. I called it the Pink Stuff because it was pink and tasted pink—not airhead pink like cotton candy—but luscious pink-rose pink. It included cherry Jell-O, cream cheese, pecans, and cranberries. I think that’s all the ingredients. But I don’t know for sure and I don’t know the portions and I don’t have a clue how to put it together.

I don’t know where the recipe for the Pink Stuff is. It got lost somewhere when we cleaned out her house.

So the Pink Stuff will have to remain her unique dish, one I cannot duplicate. I miss it. It is the empty place at the table that once was hers.

I did create my own recipe for beans and meatballs. My mother tried it and liked it. She said I had a way of taking a recipe and making it my own.

My recipe for beans and meatballs
Sauté one small onion (chopped finely) with a handful of pine nuts
Combine ½ pound of ground beef with ½ pound of ground pork
Add a cup of ricotta cheese to the meat
Mix in the sautéed onion and pine nuts
Add some finely chopped fresh rosemary
Let sit if you want for an hour or overnight, but you don’t have to
Form the meatballs (keep them on the small side)
Brown the meatballs on all sides until golden brown
Remove meatballs from the pan
Put an 8-ounce can of chopped tomatoes into the pan (open the can and empty the contents)
Add a cup of red wine
Raise to a boil then turn to medium high
Add the meatballs and cook until they are well done
Heat a can of white beans (any kind you like–again, open the can and empty the contents)
To the beans add garlic
Toast some dried thyme
When the beans are done, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with the toasted thyme
Place the meatballs and beans in separate serving dishes on the table
(I place the meatballs on the trivet that says, “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy”)
and let your guests do with them as they may

Note: I think I gave you all the ingredients and methods. If not, improvise!

The Doll Who Hid the Toilet Paper

I use a fountain pen to write my morning pages. It’s a Mont Blanc fountain pen that sits in its desktop holder. It belonged to my mentor, my high school English teacher Ed Brush. Ed is responsible for Tom and I coming back together; he married us at the side of Mt. Tam.

Ed actually left the pen to Tom, but Tom doesn’t like using fountain pens. I, on the other hand, have a collection of them. I like writing with a fountain pen. There’s something about the way the ink flows onto the page.

Ed’s gift to me was the doll who hid the toilet paper.

We had one of those in my bathroom growing up. It appeared about the time I was ten. My grandmother had crocheted an antebellum-style pink dress for a small doll, stuck the legs into the center of a roll of toilet paper, and without much ceremony, given it to my mother.

My grandmother was an expert seamstress and knitter, and could crochet anyone under the table. I still have a blouse she hand stitched when she was 95. I don’t wear it. I just keep it so I can marvel at the evenness of the stitching. I think those stitches would survive a nuclear explosion.

The doll who hid the toilet paper began appearing in bathrooms around the country about the same time it appeared in ours – during the early Sixties. I suspect it began as a nifty idea in Woman’s Day or Better Homes and Gardens, and then swept the nation without fanfare or being noted in daily newspapers.

Woman’s Day and Better Homes and Gardens were targeted at women whose homes would have the toilet paper neatly stashed out of sight in a closet or cabinet. I’m kind of thinking that the doll who hid the toilet paper was a way to bring graciousness to the bathroom – a way to provide guests with a brand new roll of toilet paper, thus avoiding their coming face-to-face with the dreaded final square at an awkward moment.

This could be where the phrase “Getting caught with your pants down,” comes from.

Of course, like the guest towels, I don’t think anyone ever used that roll of toilet paper the doll hid. I mean, what would you do with the doll afterwards?

Last night, as I cleared the table, I lifted the bowl of roasted broccoli and cauliflower to reveal another domestic vestige of my childhood: the round wooden trivet it had been placed on had this inscribed on it:

My house is clean enough to be healthy, and dirty enough to be happy.

That was my mother, the daughter of the woman who made the doll who hid the toilet paper and in her nineties bragged that the manager of the elder housing community she lived in told her she kept her house nicer than anyone else.

This difference created some tension between them. Particularly when my grandmother lived with my mother for some five years. Getting her own apartment was like manna from heaven for her and for my mother. Each once again had dominion over her domain.

My mother’s home continued to be clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy. Her approach to interior decorating was haphazard. It had its own logic. At some point I discovered that the silver-coated wine-tasting cup, dangling from a chain hooked onto a picture hanger, was hung in her den not because of its significance, but because it hid the hole that revealed the layers of paint that had built up between the time my brother’s wedding picture had been hung there, and then taken down after his divorce.

It was, I guess, a version of the doll who hid the toilet paper.

She eschewed crafts that kept her at home. Traveling the world was her passion. This Christmas, as I put the hand-painted Santa Claus on the tree, I realized that it was one she had made. I remembered her kitchen table covered with vials of paint and blank precut flat wooden ornaments – angels, trees, Santas. She had resorted to crafting them in order to keep from losing her mind as the relentless march of Alzheimer’s took my father from her. Leaving the house was an exotic event for her during the time he lived at home.

My mother had wanted to be an artist, wanted to work for Disney studios. But, she came of age at a time when women had to have a particular mindset in order to be out in the world, rather in the home. She would have had to stray too far from my grandmother to do that. And so she didn’t.

It’s a shame. My mother’s hand-painted ornament reveals her talent. It was innate.

That trivet — “My house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy,” I think was my mother’s act of rebellion – a rebellion against what defined a woman. She, along with so many other women, got a taste of what might be possible for them when they left the home to work during World War II. Then, like many of the others, she sucked that experience up so things could get back to normal. I think they sucked it up so they could heal the men who returned from war

But, she and they were of that generation who didn’t talk about it. They just did what they thought they were supposed to do, for the good of all.

I think that beneath the surface of that normal life was a world of grief: the grief of men who had experienced the Great Depression and a War; the grief of women who had lost loved ones in the War; and the grief of women who had been given a glimpse of a world outside the home, and then had it taken from them in the name of returning to normal.

Modern conveniences (TV dinners, frozen fish sticks, and so on) were supposed to make them happier, relieve them of the chore of domestic life. I think what it did instead, was remove the artistry of domesticity, and turned it into a trap. At least that was the struggle my mother had. And I had to figure my way out of it.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that writing was my avocation. Claiming it required that I had to throw off the self-imposed limits the women in my family had accepted as just a fact of life. And then I had to reclaim my need for the art of domesticity – creating a home.

Ed Brush was my mentor. He taught me Shakespeare. He taught me that it was important to look beneath the surface – to reveal lies that kept us from our humanity.

About a month before he died, I visited with him and his wife Lee. I told him the story about the doll who hid the toilet paper. He disappeared and returned with a roll of toilet paper and the doll who had hid his toilet paper. It had been given to him by some relative who clearly was clueless about their household.

This was his gift to me. His legacy. What he wanted to pass on to me. I laughed and then asked why he had kept it all these years.

He told me to pull down the top of the doll’s dress. I did. On the protruding, plastic breasts of the doll, he had painted red dots. He had given her nipples.

I keep his doll who hid the toilet paper on the bookshelf in my writing shed.