Monday, January 25, 2010

And what she wore

It’s just a dark brown shawl, not that old, but when I wrap it about me I settle into history and become my great-great grandmother. 

The only full length photograph I have of Martha Elizabeth Johnson Spillman Watson is one composed in her middle-age. She’s standing on the steps of the tidy, white frame, gingerbread-trim house that is now the Hickman County Museum.

Nunny--as they called her-- endured the Civil War, a first husband who didn’t come home, a second marriage pierced by deaths of two small sons, and years of widowhood beginning in her forties.Yet on a snowy day during the Great Depression, she chose her attire, walked to her front steps, and regally posed for a picture postcard.

She still had her spirit. She cared what she wore.

Clothes delight me--for this reason and a hundred more. As a five-year-old I’d snuggle against my own grandmother and interrupt her stories to say, “and what she wore was...” I was the costume designer to her tales of young Tina and wild carpet rides . A few years older I scratched out pencil drawings--sophisticates in flaring shirtwaists, cinched belts, and sling-back heels.  I was a grown up woman with freedom to design and choose.

The only woman in my family to openly celebrate her wardrobe was my great Aunt Sadie, who fed my growing addiction. From the Hudson’s a few blocks from her Detroit balcony came a scarlet bathing suit edged with a running trim of tiny white balls, a Spanish skirt and peasant blouse, the cowboy boots I'd broadly hinted for.  She loved red and I'm sure that's what she was wearing in this photo as she sailed across Lake Michigan. But I remember her best--the age I am now--in a creamy white wool suit, beige stilettos, dark hair caught in a French roll.  Sadie understood understatement.

My first wearable design was a skirt stitched from one of my brother’s cloth diapers. It fit  like an bandage. More attempts would follow, with quiet encouragement and tutoring from Frances who lived up the hill, and unsupressed eye-rolling from Mom. In my teens I sewed sleeveless summer pants-dress that flared from the waist into rippling sail-like legs. The project worked, but my plan for a debut at church was blocked. “No,” my mother said. “No. Period.”

Taboos of the early sixties became the norm in no time. I wore gypsy pairings like a peacock's plume-- navy with avocado, purple paisley with ruffles, fringe and macrame all floating on a bare and over-tanned midriff.  I sailed toward college in a sea of beaded bracelets, frayed jeans, and undulating tie dyes.  My hair grew past my shoulders, fragile and stick straight, but still I ironed it. Near high school graduation my friend Cherry pierced my ears against an ice cube and I wore delicate silver hoops in full view of my father, knowing it would be far easier to receive forgiveness than permission.

As a college student and young wife my standards matured. Instead of memorizing French (a move I would regret) I once again took up sewing. In September I  sashayed to class in orange: flared slacks and a floor-length vest of double-knit, worn over a matching Cossack shirt. In January, The French Lieutenant’s Woman billowed forth in an indigo cape, down 3rd Street in Louisville and across campus for classes in design. A happy time, me and my creations.

After college, a turning point. Newly degreed, we U-hauled  to a town perfect for raising two sons, perfect for Garden Club, Country Club. Perfect for wealthy farmers' wives feasting on barbecue.  Perfect for library cards and church choir. A tacit dress code reigned for young wives, and I complied with a silent submission reserved for Southern girls. I stirred up corn pudding, dopped off Matt and Kent at school,  accepted a part-time writing job, endured.

Deliverance came in the form of a neighbor. Mary Parker –older than my mother–-served me tea and spoke of Europe. She showed me hidden seams of her Chanel-style coat, read with me the silky Braille of an oriental rug, the draping hand of a length of foulard, the hand-tied fagoting of a linen napkin.  Her kitchen curtains were a tailor’s dream--stripes joined invisibly, windowpane plaids in architectural alignment. And all so crisply  pressed to looked like origami.

She talked with me, and her four-room cottage sang with joie de vivre

And so my sense of self emerged,  its organdy presence unfolding and tentatively taking flight: the day we wore the hats to Keeneland, the floral gardening jacket, tea stained into antiquity at the kitchen sink. A disastrous black-tie dinner, bearable then and  in retrospect thanks to a photograph of what I wore: vintage black lace with butterfly sleeves, found in a box in Mom's attic..

Days brightened more with the next relocation A waving line of laundry  welcomed me from across the yard, and soon the laundress followed.  Barb appeared in my kitchen for coffee, sympathy, and instant bonding in the form of what she wore, what she sewed, and what she dared to hang on the line outdoors. Outlasting subsequent moves and marriages, Barb keeps the taupe silk we bought in Montmartre, shopkeeper muttering and fuming as he converted sixteen yards to meters. Like us,  it's undivided,  the bold yardage of life. 

Lately I’ve culled.  Out, out, damn spots, damned prints and animal skins. Out candy pinks, unruly reds. Out, trendy things, spied on a rainy day. But boots can stay until they fall apart. The black skirts stay, and all things taupe, the jeans that fit, ascending stack of black t-shirts. The bracelets, one for every day. And one last remnant of my hippie stage–I’m sorry, Dad-- I've kept my silver loops.

Mary Parker, long dead, still lingers in my wardrobe: a crisp white shirt, purchased for the feel of the fabric alone; a camel-tan coat found at the consignment shop.  Not my hue, but so perfectly detailed that I returned twice to look and finally brought it home. My Sadie-shoes, unwearable. Red leather clutch, Key West.

Some pieces should be discarded but I just don't have the heart. Others give me a nameless sense of security. One or two are gloriously impractical, and,  like the silk Barb keeps in storage, trail with me from house to house-- the fabric of our  halcyon days, our hearts. And what we wore.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The hot and the sour

This morning our house was power-washed by the most intense rainstorm of the season. First vertical, then horizontal, the downpour came at our sunspace windows with enough roar and force to send us running to see how much damage was being done. Everything was intact, and soon after the worst of the storm the skies cleared for a few minutes before storm two (of three in the forecast) came barreling in.

With a window of an hour at best, Ira and I layered up and charged down the front stairs to embark on day two of our hot and sour soup taste test competition.

Hot and sour soup is, in Asian homes, the catch-all for leftovers.  It's chicken soup with vinegar for sour and white pepper for hot.  Straw mushrooms and tofu are often added, along with soy sauce, tiger lily buds and thinly sliced pork.  Fresh cilantro and pineapple chunks are a bonus.  This combination is the perfect cure for the rainy season, a cold, or a generic case of the blues.

If the hot and sour soup in a Chinese restaurant is wonderful, it's a sure thing that the rest of the meal will be even better.  With that in mind we've made 2010 the Year of the Soup, a time to review all the eateries in our hood, and to answer the question once and for all:  where can perfection be found?

Melisa's (that's with one s) restaurant on Balboa has been named by friends as the best soup in the hood and we began our quest there last week.  We were underwhelmed.  Melisa's was charming, but the hot and sour we brought home was flat in color and low on ingredients.  What was there (tofu, sprouts, mushrooms) was fine but the broth was missing the luscious translucent red-brown color of soy sauce and hot chili sauce. The egg-drop component was a bit heavy for soup. Like scrambled eggs Kentucky-style.

Today's taste test at Tom Kiang on Geary was more successful.  We're getting organized and now we have a mental scorecard in place.  First, the visuals.  Tom Kiang's hot and sour was beautiful, a deep, transparent red-brown.  The aroma was perfect.  The taste test?  TK's soup was full of all the standard ingredients except pork slivers, which we didn't miss.  The broth was just the right consistency, not too much cornstarch.  But  hot overpowered sour by just a bit, adding up to a little white pepper overkill.

We didn't find perfection today, but Tom Kiang did give us a terrific floor show.  A Dim Sum restaurant, Tom Kiang specializes in small plates. (You might say Dim Sum is to Chinese as tapas is to Spanish.) So a big meal at Tom Kiang is made of many small appetizers.

We stuck to the plan of having hot and sour soup only, except for one digression--we couldn't resist a plate of four small dumplings stuffed with shrimp and greens.  Otherwise our eyes got the feast as waiters and waitresses tempted diners with  a non-stop parade of puffy brown pork rolls, glistening pot stickers with sauce,  stir-fried greens, shumai (steamed dumplings), and crispy tempura shrimp with beady black eyes and fins intact.

Next week we may try Golden Chopstick on Balboa, or one of the restaurants on Clement.  As rough as it is, our search must go on.  The perfect hot and sour is hiding out there somewhere, and we'll just have to find it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

And you're beyond

Today someone took my bike. I left it on the sidewalk by the trash cans with a sign taped on that said, free. And someone took it.

A dark red bike, a coaster, a straw basket wired on back--I bought it on a sunny Saturday when I lived in Lexington, newly single, unattached. A day for a solitary ride.

That day the bike man hauled his twenty or so reconditioned rides to a grassy median in the neighborhood, set up shop as he did every weekend during the summer, and sold each one for whatever he could get. I saw the bike, walked around it, squeezed the tires, hopped on and took a ride down Walton thinking to make the purchase there and then. The pedals worked; the brakes worked; and the size suited me fine.

I liked many things about my coaster: its rich and tasteful color, its tires with crack-crazed and ageing tea-patina’d walls. Most of all I liked the speed with which I could ease to the left out my short driveway, peddle down Cramer, around the playground, and up Bassett toward Kent and Minda’s house. I could pump up their hill, park by the porch, and settle into the swing for a glass of wine. In a world full of complexities, the bike could ease me to my destination with simplicity and efficiency.

When Ira and I moved to San Francisco the bike came with us. We forced it, wheels akimbo, into the already-overloaded van. It was the first item out as well. Here in the avenues and car-less much of the time, I’ve used it to coast down to the post office at Geary and 21st.; I’ve felt very European hopping off at the Richmond Market, filling my wicker basket with red and yellow peppers, beets, fresh dill.

On bright weekends Ira and I would take his bike and mine to the path that follows Ocean Beach. We'd ride against the wind, with the cracker-box houses of Sunset to our left and the misting and glimmering span of the Pacific to our right. Worries about parking and fueling were lost on those rides. I ignored the failing brakes and disengaging gears. For a mere 50 dollars, I had purchased freedom and brought it West with me.

On my first bike getaway, I rode with the Casparian sibs, Pete and Donna, on the winding, road from Clinton to Columbus, bumping over concrete bridges and swerving by stripped tires and aromatic roadkill. We stood and pumped up hills, and coasted between the lower fields. Dad picked us up at the park and documented our journey in snapshots. He treated us to frozen custards before heaping bikes and friends into the back of the farm truck and delivering us safely home.

On a grownup journey years later, my friend Barbara and I crisscrossed the flat streets of Key West on our rented bikes. We dodged roosters in Little Bahama and eased down Duvall and Southard, rolled through the stop sign on Angela and skidded on gravel as we cut around the sweltering cemetery. I can’t recall where we were going on those days, but I remember how we got there, cooled through time and space by the journey itself.

On a bolder expedition we left Gare St. Lazare in Paris, stepped off our train in Vernon and rented bikes to ride the 4 kilometers to Giverny. Already heady with bike-bought freedom we celebrated with an outdoor lunch of roasted vegetables. By the second glass of wine I was sobbing enthusiastically, caught in a circle of emotions brought on by wine and my all-too-recent divorce. I couldn’t finish my meal, and before getting back on our bikes we asked the waiter to package our leftovers for a later dejuner.

He emerged from the kitchen and in his hand was a small white plastic box containing my mushrooms and couscous. This carrier was, he said, a container detached from his own refrigerator. In French the shaken waiter explained to the still-crying me that he since had no carry out boxes, a part of his refrigerator would simply have to do. So–-still tipsy and now laughing--Barb and I hopped back on our wheels and headed to the gardens of Monet.  We left sorrow at the table. On a bike it’s just that easy–-get on and you’re beyond.

The childhood bikes, the rental bikes, the breezy San Francisco bikes-- they’re all a blur now, each one in a sequence of photo frames that signal, take me, rent me or to give away. An ending? No. Those frames click toward the next ride, the simple spinning wheels, cool air passing, and carefree moving forward once again.
photographs: Barbara Talan