Sunday, August 31, 2008

Adventures in eating

Friday, August 29, 2008
9:05 pm
Red Bank, NJ

I am in my pajamas. OK, perhaps I should say STILL in my pajamas. Never got out of them today, a fact I am more than a little embarrassed to admit. I have heavy duty plans. The last Friday I have to spend at the Jersey Shore, almost perfect weather, the holiday tourists yet to descend for Labor Day weekend. Gone.

To backtrack. Yesterday, I rode out to an adult community in Monroe County to see my Aunt Sally. I make the trip mostly on muscle memory, as my parents lived in that community for the last 20 years of their lives. More than a decade has passed since their deaths, yet I slide backwards in time as I get closer to the gate. I can never resist turning down Chatham Lane and slowing down in front of their unit.

I don’t know if it’s a common skill, but I easily and often time shift. It matters not the current paint color or the now maturing new vegetation, I do not see nor smell it. The house morphs before me. It’s gray-blue, with an oval "The Rosenfield’s" sign askew over the prominent double garage door. Fuchsia azaleas lead to the door, where I never know what song will ring out when the doorbell is pressed. Hava Nagila is my dad’s favorite. The notes bounce around in my brain as I pick up speed and head toward my aunt’s house.

I flat-out love my Aunt Sally. At 77, the last of my mother’s sisters, she remains active and attractive, still counting every mouthful of food. She goes to at least three stores to get the freshest supplies for the simple menu. As we sit down to our traditional lunch of bagels, cream cheese, smoked whitefish and a composed salad, I watch her unconsciously perform her rituals. I can’t recall the last time I saw my aunt just eat a bagel. She slowly turns each half in her palm scooping out the inside, leaving a shell, onto which she allows herself a schmear of cream cheese. I wager she knows the calorie count of every edible item in her kitchen.

Ironically, as a child,one reason I adore visiting her Brooklyn apartment is the food, specifically the candy. Atop the console TV in the front room, there sits a green ceramic lazy susan filled with assorted chocolate covered treats—marshmallow twists, jellies, nuts, creams—you name it. And in her old-fashioned walk-in pantry, there are boxes of cookies, almost always the favorite Mallomars. Her cabinets are still filled with bags of chocolate miniature sweets, and often the garage frig is stocked with Mallomars, so she will have them through the summer months when they disappear from store shelves.

Here’s the thing. She keeps all this stuff but doesn’t touch it until company comes. She is the strongest and most disciplined person I’ve ever known. All her life, it has fallen to her to care for aging in-laws, a young son dying of cancer, her mother, and then her husband after a major stroke. This, in addition to the normal stress of raising three daughters. She is excitable, smart, funny and a joy to be around.

As a young adolescent, I spend summers with my aunt and uncle in the bungalow colonies that dot the Catskills of the 1950s and ‘60s. As she’s a full decade younger than my mom, I feel even closer to her. Although, living in such tight quarters we are all “close”. We sleep in the same bedroom, and she testily informs me one morning that my teeth grinding is driving her nuts. Who knew? At home I sleep alone behind a closed door.

By now I’m sure you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with my pajama day. Hang in there. It’s coming.

So I arrive about noon. We eat and talk—and talk, and talk—and when we look up, it’s almost 7 pm. (Oh, I should add that I do a load of laundry. I like to do my laundry there. She is a stain maven, never meets a stain she can’t defeat.) What’s left to do? Why go out to dinner of course, either at the diner or local Chinese restaurant. We choose the later.

I’ve been to the low key family restaurant more times than I can count with my folks. Since we’re eating “late” the place is deserted, which turns out to be fortunate. We order our soup and combination plates, sip our tea and crunch our tasty fried noodles. And we—what else—talk. We continue nonstop as our combo plates arrive.

I’m not paying attention to my food. I pick-up a small piece of General Tsos chicken, covered in sauce. I chew lightly and swallow. And start choking, retching, and other stuff too gross to mention. It’s a red chili. I pace, unable to breath, wheezing and coughing. I know enough not to drink water, but I do and it’s worse. My poor Aunt Sally starts to panic. I’ve seen that look in her eyes when I was 12 years old.

Chinese people keep patting my back, telling me drink tea. No use. When I catch my breath and can spit out a few words, I ask for a piece of bread. There is none in the restaurant. (How the hell do they make shrimp toast?) I stop my aunt from running next-door to the Quick Check to buy a loaf. Small cubes of pineapple help. I slowly eat a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I am sore but calm. We go next-door to buy Aleve which I down in case the inflammation decides to close my throat, windpipe, et al.

However, I almost don’t make it out of my seat. Not only are my chest muscles aching, but somehow the spasms manage to severely wrench my back. Walking isn’t easy. My aunt wants me to sleep over, but the drug kicks in and I'm even able to set up her Kureg coffee machine. I make it back to Red Bank at midnight.

I sleep in a bit, eat a bit, down more than a bit of Aleve and decide to take a bit of a rest. I awaken late in the afternoon and can summon no energy. Come to think of it, I’m really tapped out. Time to head upstairs for the night. It's been a rough day.

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