Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Potato Rock

Story as told and written by Gretta Keene Sabinson (Grett- Larry said it'd be ok to post this here)

(Note: for those of you following from the previous blog - you can keep the David Allen Coe cue'd or switch to Yoko Ono's "Kiss Kiss Kiss." That's what I'm doing.

The Potato Rock

My mother had a relationship with potatoes. Not surprising since she had bright red hair and was covered in freckles so large they looked like droplets of butterscotch. Young children, who didn't know yet what not to say, would ask to touch her skin. She was Irish and her people had died for that tuber. She loved potatoes and believed in their power. There was no problem that a big helping of potatoes couldn't at least temporarily cure.

We ate a lot of potatoes.

For spitting anger, only mashed would do. She sat at the kitchen table, newspapers laid out over plastic cloth, her trusty rusty potato peeler in hand. Fast and furious she would flick those peels until sometimes, without thinking, she rendered an entire sack of potatoes white and newly nude. She mashed those potatoes with a vengeance; creating a mound so large it rose up twice as high as the pale green bowl. There were always leftovers. Some she mixed with egg and served as breakfast fritters. The next night she might smear the rest into a thick layer of crust for her tuna casserole or shepherd's pie. My younger brothers and I would cry -- “No more mashed potatoes!” So a few times, to make them “fun,” she dyed them bright colors - turquoise, orange and pink.

It didn't really matter to my Mom, as long as when the sadness got too big, she had her potatoes. She made tiny new red potatoes boiled until the skins popped open, slathered in buttered and rolled in minced parsley. Those helped soothe the days when there was no money. She made scalloped potatoes with cheese melted to a golden crust and the milk cooked to a creamy clabber. Those eased the days of endless tutoring a son with “difficulties” so severe no amount of learning would ever cure.

On a hot day each summer, she would make her vichyssoise, using leeks, homemade chicken stock and the stretch-the-budget expense - a pint of real fresh cream. She would ladle out the cool smooth soup and grind a smattering of nutmeg in each bowl. “You always pronounce the 's',” she would instruct, in case we had forgotten. And maybe that rich potato soup numbed the pain of a husband who did not love her.

My mother's life always seemed a story out of some dark fairy tale or Dickens. Felled by infantile arthritis when she was 6, she spent her childhood in and out of hospitals, wheelchairs and crutches. On Christmas Eve, when she was 13, her parents were killed in a car she was supposed to be in. The Catholic side of the family didn't want her because she wasn't Catholic and couldn't kneel. The Protestant Pilgrim side didn't want her because her red hair and freckles revealed a son who had married low. So my mother was sent to the care of her older brother, in the Army, stationed in Arizona.

Heat and sun and wide open skies were healing and fifteen years later, when my father, the hoped-for Prince arrived, my mother had long been standing on her own two feet. They met, married and not quite 9 months later, I was born. She loved being a mother, a role she had been repeatedly told she could never, should never, attempt to play. There were three of us children, plus one who died. My father, the college professor, always had a student he was romancing. The year I left for college, my father was the one who abandoned home and went to live with a student not quite my age.

My mother's despair filled the house like the smell of scorched potatoes. We had stumbled through Christmas. It was New Years Eve. My brothers and two neighbor guys decided on an evening of pool, poker and knock-hockey. I made popcorn and my mother made clam dip. Midnight loomed, marking an end of the year that held the last few tattered remnants of our lives “before.” Dazed, my mother walked as if towards gallows. I felt hopeless, did not know how we'd get through.

My mother mentioned she had never seen the sun rise over the ocean. And that became the plan. We would stay up all night, then head out before dawn to our New York coast. Mom joined in our homemade Olympiad. We laughed and kidded, prodding ourselves to stave off sleep. By 4 AM we were gathering scarves and gloves and filling a thermos with hot coffee. Crammed into the car, we headed out through darkened Long Island suburbs on our pilgrimage to sunrise on Jones Beach.

Now, those of you familiar with Jones Beach have already envisioned the problem. There are parking lots and then a seemingly endless expanse of beach before you reach the water. My mother's crippled walk was unsteady, painful and slow. Not only that, but a dense fog had descended as we approached the shore. “You go on,” my mother said. “I'll be fine in the car. It's too dark, too far.” We would not have her refusal. With two strong guys on either side, we led her on, through dark, fog and eternity of sand. Propelled by feeble promise, each step questioned our desperate, now foolish-seeming plan. Slowly, slowly we approached, as the crash of waves grew steadily louder.

In the still cottoned landscape, colors of our clothing began seeping back. The water arrived at our feet almost before we could see it. We had achieved our destination. And then it happened. I'm not making this up. The fog disappeared as if blown away by some celestial breath. Over the distant edge of ocean, the sun peeked up, shooting rays right out of some children's book depicting Heaven. We stood at the meeting of vast sand -- and vast sea -- and vast sky and took in the gifted moment. The surf was the only sound.

And then, my mother cried out - “Look! A potato!” She hobbled over and picked it up. We all turned and stared - at my mother, standing there, on the beach - holding a potato. I went to her, reached out to touch, and she handed me the potato. I agreed. “Sure looks like a potato,” I said, holding the potato-shaped and potato-colored rock. I smiled and handed it back to my mother. She held it with both hands, holding it close to her face to better see. She began to cry. “I know what this means!” she said. “It's a sign for me.”

“The Potato Rock is telling me - my life may not be fancy -- like cheese fondue - or strawberry parfait - but it will be good enough - just like a potato!” And it was.

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