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The collection is grounded in classics. Lorrie Moore's "How to Talk to Your Mother (notes)" traces a daughter's thoughts of what she can and cannot tell her mother in reverse order from just after her mother's death back to her own birth. The renowned "A Rose in the Heart of New York," by Edna O'Brien, chronicles a daughter's life from the moment her mother, crucifix clenched between her teeth, pushes the girl out to the mother's eventual death without reconciliation. One wonders if the editors, who hint at conversations they had over selection, saw this juxtaposition. More likely, the connection speaks to the universal nature of mother-daughterhood. O'Brien writes, "Her mother's knuckles were her knuckles, her mother's veins were her veins, her mother's lap was a second heaven, her mother's forehead a copybook onto which she traced A B C D, her mother's body was a recess that she would wander inside forever and ever, a sepulcher growing deeper and deeper."
Berliner admits that she mistook Margaret Atwood's "Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother" for autobiography, a cause for some ribbing and a tribute to Atwood's craft. Oates' own "Death Mother" captures the psychotic need-tolerance continuum that exists between mother and daughter, even when that nurturer has grossly abused her ownflesh-and-blood. (Death Mother should never have been fit for childbearing. She reappears in her daughter's life like a gauzy apparition from which the girl must tangibly break free.)
The collection encompasses magical religiosity (Lois Gold), Latin sensual sensibility (Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez) the pathos of ls the story of the Northridge earthquake of 1994 and how Valentino's owner Piero Selvaggio, who has one of the world's great wine cellars, lost 30,000 bottles of precious, hard-to-find wines. So well loved was he that the Italian wine producers came together and replaced what he had lost.
Most of the recipes are simple and elegant, perfect for a novice. Some require a skilled cook. The instruction and recipe writing are clear and thorough enough that cooks with lesser skills aren't left wandering. O'Connor soothes away culinary worries with expert food photography and lively music.
While the cook plays Funiculi, Funicula she could mince garlic for Sea Bass in Crazy Water or stir the Risotto with Scampi. O Sole Mio could accompany a cook as he assembles the green butter sauce for Pumpkin Cappellacci or Pasta with Rabbit Sauce. The preparation of Little Agnolotti Stuffed with Pheasant would go more smoothly with a Tarantella. The sweet rendition of Santa Lucia might aid digestion and enhance a dessert of Warm Zabaglione Scented with Orange-Muscat Liqueur or Venetian Tiramisu with Vanilla Sauce.
Readers should be forewarned. This book is infectious. All of the recipes in this collection are winners. Paging through this book they will find themselves with Italian fever which has as its symptoms a wild hunger and longing for Italy. Thankfully, Italian music and food seem to alleviate these symptoms. This book and compact disc will give readers not only the disease but also provides the cure.
20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction
Copyright © 2000 Joyce Carol Oates
All right reserved.
At the age of eleven, Elena Mejías was still a scrawny whelp of a girl with the dull skin of solitary children, a mouth revealing gaps still unfilled by second teeth, mouse-colored hair, and a prominent skeleton, much too large for the rest of her, that threatened to poke through at the elbows and knees. Nothing about her betrayed her torrid dreams, nor presaged the sensuous creature she would become. Among the nondescript furnishings and faded draperies of her mother's boardinghouse, she went completely unnoticed. She was like a melancholy little waif playing among the dusty geraniums and enormous ferns in the patio, trooping back and forth between the kitchen range and dining-room tables to serve the evening meal. On the rare occasion some boarder took notice of her, it was only to ask her to spray for cockroaches or to fill the water-tank in the bathroom when the creaking pump failed to draw water to the second floor. Her mother, exhausted by heat and the grind of running her boardinghouse, had no energy for tenderness or time to devote to her daughter, so she failed to notice when Elena began to change into a different creature. She had always been a quiet, shy child absorbed in mysterious games,talking to herself in corners and sucking her thumb. She emerged from the house only to go to school or the market; she seemed uninterested in the noisy children of her own age playing in the street.
The transformation of Elena Mejías coincided with the arrival of Juan José Bernal, the Nightingale, as he liked to call himself and as a poster he tacked to the wall of his room loudly proclaimed. Most of the boarders were students or employees in some obscure division of city government. Real ladies and gentlemen, Elena's mother always said, for she prided herself on not taking just anyone under her roof, only respectable persons with a visible means of support, good manners, and enough money to pay a month's room and board in advance, who were also disposed to live by the regulations of her boardinghouse — more fitting for a seminary than a hotel. A widow has to think of her reputation and be able to command respect; I don't want my home turned into a haven for bums and perverts, her mother frequently repeated, so no one, especially Elena, would ever forget. One of the girl's responsibilities was to spy on the guests and keep her mother informed of any suspicious behavior. Eternal stealth exaggerated the ethereal air of the child who moved in an aura of silence, vanishing in the shadows of a room only to appear suddenly as if returning from another dimension. Mother and daughter shared the many chores of the boardinghouse, each immersed in her silent routine, feeling no need to communicate with the other. In truth, they spoke very little, and when they did, during the brief freedom of the hour of the siesta, it was about the clients. Sometimes Elena tried to embellish the gray lives of those transitory men and women who passed through the house leaving no trace of a memory by attributing to them some extraordinary event, coloring their lives through the gift of some clandestine love affair or tragedy, but her mother had an infallible instinct for detecting her fantasies. She also knew when her daughter was hiding something from her. She had an unassailable practical sense and a clear notion of everything that went on under her roof. She knew exactly what each lodger was doing at any hour of the night or day, how much sugar was left in the pantry, who was being called when the telephone rang, and where the last person had left the scissors. She had once been a cheerful, even pretty, young woman; her frumpy dresses barely restrained the impatience of a still-young body, but all the years spent scratching out a living had slowly drained away her spirit and zest for life. When Juan José Bernal came to inquire about a room, however, all that changed for her, and for Elena as well. The mother, seduced by the Nightingale's pretentious manner of speaking and the hint of fame represented by the poster, ignored her own rules and accepted him as a guest, despite the fact he did not in any way fit her image of the ideal boarder. Bernal told her that he sang at night and therefore needed to rest during the day; that he was between engagements and thus could not pay the month in advance; and that he was extremely fussy about his food and hygiene — he was a vegetarian, and he needed to shower twice a day. Amazed, Elena watched, without comment or question, as her mother wrote the name of the new guest in her book and then showed him to his room, struggling with his heavy suitcase while he bore the guitar case and the cardboard tube containing his treasured poster. Camouflaged against the wall, Elena followed them up the stairs, noting the new guest's intense appraisal of the cotton skirt clinging to her mother's sweaty buttocks. As she went into the room Elena flipped the switch, and the great blades of the ceiling fan began to turn with the screech of rusted metal.
Bernal's arrival signaled an immediate change in the household routine. There was more work now, because Bernal slept until the other guests had left for their various employments; he tied up the bath for hours on end; he consumed an astounding quantity of rabbit food, which had to be prepared especially for him; he was constantly on the telephone; and he made liberal use of the iron for touching up his dress shirts without any charge for this unusual privilege. Elena came home at siesta, when the sun was blazing and the day languishing beneath a terrible white glare, but even at that hour Juan José Bernal would still be fast asleep. As her mother had ordered, Elena would remove her shoes to keep from disturbing the artificial quiet of the house. She was aware that her mother was changing day by day. She could see the signs from the very beginning, long before the residents began to whisper behind her mother's back. First it was the fragrance that clung to her mother and lingered in the rooms as she passed through. Elena knew every corner of the house, and her long training in spying led her to the perfume bottle behind the packets of rice and tins of conserves on the pantry shelf. Next she noticed the dark pencil outlining her mother's eyelids, the touch of red on her lips, the new underclothes, the immediate smile when finally Bernal came down in the evening, his hair still wet from the bath, and sat in the kitchen to wolf down strange dishes fit for a fakir. Her mother would sit across from him and listen while he recounted episodes from his life as an artist, punctuating every adventure with a deep laugh.
For several weeks, Elena hated that man who was claiming all the space in the house and all her mother's attention. She was repelled by the brilliantine-slick hair, the polished nails, the excessive zeal with a toothpick, the pedantry, the brazen assumption they all would serve him. She wondered what her mother could see in the man: he was nothing but a small-time adventurer, a bar entertainer whom no one had ever heard of, why, he might be an out-and-out scoundrel, as señorita Sofía, one of their oldest boarders, had suggested in whispers. But then one warm Sunday evening when there was nothing to do and time seemed to have stopped within the walls of the house, Juan José Bernal appeared in the patio with his guitar; he installed himself on a bench beneath the fig tree and began to strum a few chords. The sound drew all the guests, who peered out one by one, at first with a certain timidity — unsure of the reason for this unusual occurrence — and then with increasing enthusiasm; they hauled out the dining room chairs and set them in a circle around the Nightingale. The man had an ordinary voice, but he had a good ear, and sang with a certain charm. He knew all the stock boleros and rural ballads of the popular repertoire, and a few songs from the Revolution sprinkled with blasphemies and four-letter words that made the ladies blush. For the first time that Elena could remember, there was a festive air in the house. When it grew dark, they lighted two kerosene lamps and hung them in the trees, and brought beer and the bottle of rum reserved for treating colds. Elena was trembling as she filled the glasses; she felt the heartrending words of the songs and the lament of the guitar in every fiber of her body, like a fever. Her mother was tapping her toe to the rhythm. Suddenly she stood up, took Elena's hands, and the two began to dance, immediately followed by all the others, including señorita Sofía, all fluttering and nervous giggles. For an endless moment Elena danced, moving to the cadence of Bernal's voice, held tight against her mother's body, breathing in the new flowery scent, blissfully happy. Then she felt her mother gently pushing her away, pulling back to dance alone. With her eyes closed and her head tipped back, her mother swayed like a sheet drying in the breeze. Elena stepped from the floor, and all the dancers returned to their seats, leaving the mistress of the boardinghouse alone in the center of the patio, lost in her dance.
After that night, Elena saw Bernal through new eyes. She forgot that she had detested his brilliantine, his toothpicks, and his arrogance, and whenever she saw him or heard his voice she remembered the songs he had sung the night of that impromptu fiesta and again felt the flush on her skin and the confusion in her heart, a fever she did not know how to put into words. She watched him when he was not looking, and little by little noticed things she had not at first appreciated, his shoulders, his strong, muscular neck, the sensual curve of his heavy lips, his perfect teeth, the elegance of his long, fine hands. She was filled with an insupportable longing to be close enough to him to bury her face against his dark-skinned chest, to hear the resonance of the air in his lungs and the beating of his heart, to smell his scent, a scent she knew would be sharp and penetrating, like good leather or tobacco. She imagined herself playing with his hair, examining the muscles of his back and legs, discovering the shape of his foot, dissolving into smoke and filtering down his throat to inhabit his entire body. But if he happened to look up and meet her eyes, Elena, trembling, would run and hide in the farthest and densest corner of the patio. Bernal had taken possession of her thoughts; she could not bear how time stopped when she was away from him. In school, she moved as if in a nightmare, blind and deaf to anything except her inner thoughts, where there was room only for him. What was he doing at that moment? Perhaps he was sleeping face down on the bed with the shutters closed, the room in darkness, the warm air stirred by the blades of the fan, a trail of sweat marking his spine, his face sunk in the pillow. At the first sound of the bell marking the end of the day, she ran home, praying he was not yet awake and she would be able to wash and put on a clean dress and sit down to wait for him in the kitchen, pretending to do homework so her mother would not burden her with household chores. Later, when she heard him leaving his bath, whistling, she was tormented by impatience and fear, sure that she would die of pleasure if he touched her, even spoke to her, dying for him to do just that but at the same time ready to fade into the furniture, because although she could not live without him, neither could she endure his burning presence. Stealthily, she followed him everywhere, waited on him hand and foot, tried to divine his wishes and offer whatever he needed before he asked, but always moving like a wraith, not wanting to reveal her existence.
Elena could not sleep at night because he was not in the house. She would get up from her hammock and roam the first floor like a ghost, working up courage finally to tiptoe into Bernal's room. She would close the door behind her and open the shutter a crack to let in the reflection from the street to light the ceremonies she invented to enable her to claim the bits of the man's soul left behind in his belongings. She stood staring at herself in the oval of a mirror as black and shiny as a pool of dark mud, because he had looked at himself there and the vestiges of their two images could blend together in an embrace. She walked toward the glass, eyes staring, seeing herself through his eyes, kissing her own lips with a cold hard kiss that she imagined warm as Bernal's lips. She felt the surface of the mirror against her breast and the tiny grapes of her nipples hardened, generating a dull pain that flowed downward to an exact point between her legs. She sought that pain, again and again. She took a shirt and boots from Bernal's clothespress and put them on. She walked a few steps around the room, very careful not to make any noise. Still in his clothes, she burrowed through his drawers, combed her hair with his comb, sucked his toothbrush, licked his shaving cream, caressed his dirty clothes. Then, without knowing why, she took off her nightdress, his boots and shirt, and lay naked on Bernal's bed, greedily inhaling his scent, invoking his warmth to wrap herself in. She touched every inch of her body, beginning with the strange shape of her skull, the translucent cartilage of her ears, the sockets of her eyes, the opening of her mouth, and continued down her body, sketching all the bones, folds, angles, and curves of the insignificant whole of herself, wishing she were as immense and heavy as a whale. She imagined her body filling with a sweet, sticky liquid like honey, swelling, expanding to the size of a mammoth doll, until she overflowed the bed and the room, until her tumescence filled the entire house. Exhausted, she would doze for a few minutes, weeping.
Then one Saturday morning, watching from her window, Elena saw Bernal walk up to where her mother was bent over the trough scrubbing clothes. He laid his hand on her waist and she did not move, as if the weight of that hand were part of her body. Even from a distance, Elena could see his gesture of possession, her mother's attitude of surrender, their intimacy, the current that joined them in a formidable secret. Elena broke out in a sweat, she could not breathe, her heart was a frightened bird in her rib cage, her hands and feet tingled, her blood rushed until she thought it would burst her fingers. That was when she began to spy on her mother.
One after another, she discovered the clues she sought; at first it was only a glance, an overly long greeting, a complicitous smile, the suspicion that beneath the table their legs were touching and that they were inventing pretexts to be alone. Finally, one night as she was returning from Bernal's room after performing her lover's ritual, she heard a sound like the whisper of an underground stream coming from her mother's room, and she realized that all that time, every night while she believed Bernal was out singing for a living, the man had been just across the hall, and while she was kissing his memory in the mirror and breathing in the trace of his presence in the sheets, he had been with her mother. With the skill learned from many years of making herself invisible, she glided into the room and saw them locked in their pleasure. The fringed lampshade glowed with a warm light that exposed the lovers on the bed. Her mother was transformed into a round, rosy, moaning, opulent siren, an undulating sea anemone, all tentacles and suckers, all mouth and hands and legs and orifices, rolling and turning and cleaving to the large body of Bernal, who by contrast seemed rigid and clumsy, moving spasmodically like a piece of wood tossed by inexplicable high winds. Until that moment the girl had never seen a man naked, and she was taken aback by the essential differences. His masculinity seemed brutal to her, and it was a long time before she could overcome her terror and force herself to look. Soon, however, she was conquered by fascination and watched with absolute attention to learn from her mother the formula she had used to snatch Bernal from her, a formula more powerful than all Elena's love, all her prayers, her dreams, her silent summons, all her magic ceremonies contrived to draw him to her. She was sure that her mother's caresses and sighs held the key to the secret, and if she could learn them, Juan José Bernal would sleep with her in the hammock hung every night from two large hooks in the room of the cupboards.
Elena spent the following days in a haze. She lost interest in everything around her, even Bernal himself, whom she stored in a spare compartment of her mind, and she submersed herself in a fanciful reality that completely replaced the world of the living. She continued to follow her routines by force of habit, but her heart was not in anything she did. When her mother noticed her lack of appetite, she attributed it to oncoming puberty — though Elena still looked too young — and she found time to sit alone with her and explain to her the joke of having been born a woman. Elena listened in sullen silence to the peroration about biblical curses and menstrual flow, convinced that none of that would ever happen to her.
On Wednesday Elena felt hungry for the first time in almost a week. She went into the pantry with a can opener and a spoon and devoured the contents of three cans of green peas, then peeled the red wax from a Dutch cheese and ate it as she would an apple. Immediately after, she ran to the patio, doubled over, and vomited a vile green soup over the geraniums. The pain in her belly and the bitter taste in her mouth restored her sense of reality. That night she slept tranquilly, rolled up in her hammock, sucking her thumb as she had in her cradle. Thursday morning she woke happy; she helped her mother prepare coffee for the boarders and ate breakfast with her in the kitchen. Once at school, however, she complained of terrible pains in her stomach, and she writhed so and asked so often to go to the bathroom that by mid-morning her teacher gave her permission to go home.
Elena made a long detour, consciously avoiding familiar streets, and approached the house from the back wall, which overlooked a ravine. She managed to scale the wall and jump into the patio with less difficulty than she had expected. She had calculated that at that hour her mother would be in the market and, as it was the day for fresh fish, it would be a while before she returned. The house was empty except for Juan José Bernal and señorita Sofía, who had been home from work a week because of an attack of arthritis.
Elena hid her books and shoes under some bushes and slipped into the house. She climbed the stairway, hugging the wall and holding her breath, until she heard the radio thundering from the room of señorita Sofía and felt more calm. The door to Bernal's room opened with a push. It was dark inside, and for a moment, having just come from the brilliant daylight outside, she could see nothing. She knew the room from memory, however; she had measured that space many times and knew where each object was, the precise place the floor squeaked, how many steps it was from the door to the bed. She waited, nevertheless, until her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she could see the outlines of the furniture. A few moments more and she could see the man on the bed. He was not sleeping face down, as she had imagined so often, but lying on his back on top of the sheets, wearing only his undershorts; one arm was out flung and the other across his chest, and a lock of hair had fallen over his eyes. Instantly, all the fear and impatience that had accumulated for days disappeared, leaving Elena cleansed, with the calm of one who knows what she has to do. It seemed to her she had lived that moment many times; she told herself she had nothing to fear, this was a ceremony only slightly different from those that had gone before. Slowly, she stripped off her school uniform down to the cotton panties she dared not remove. She walked to the bed. She could see Bernal better now. Gingerly, she sat on the edge of the bed near his hand, concentrating on not adding even one wrinkle to the sheets. She leaned forward slowly, until her face was only a few centimeters from his and she could sense the warmth of his breath and the sweet scent of his body; then with infinite care she lay down beside him, extending each leg so cautiously he did not even stir. She waited, listening to the silence, until she resolved to rest her hand on his belly in an almost imperceptible caress. With that touch a suffocating wave flooded her body; she feared the sound of her heart was echoing through the house and would surely wake Bernal. It was several minutes before she recovered, and when she realized he had not moved, she relaxed, and let her arm fall limp — its weight, in any case, so slight it did not alter his sleep. Recalling her mother's movements, as her fingers crept beneath the elastic waist of his undershorts, Elena sought Bernal's lips and kissed him as she had so often kissed the mirror. Still asleep, Bernal moaned; he wrapped one arm around the girl's waist while his free hand took hers to guide her and his mouth opened to return her kiss, as he whispered his lover's name. Elena heard him name her mother, but rather than drawing back, she pressed even more closely to him. Bernal took her by the waist and pulled her atop him, settling her on his body as he began the first movements of love. Then, sensing the extreme fragility of that birdlike skeleton on his chest, a spark of awareness flashed through the cottony fog of sleep, and he opened his eyes. Elena felt his body tense, felt herself seized by the ribs and thrown aside so violently she fell to the floor, but she sprang to her feet and ran back to the bed to embrace him again. Bernal slapped her full in the face and leapt from the bed, terrorized by who knows what ancient prohibitions and nightmares.
"Wicked, wicked girl!" he screamed.
The door opened, and señorita Sofía was standing in the threshold.
* * *
Elena spent the next seven years with the nuns, three more attending college in the capital, and then began working in a bank. In the meantime, her mother married her lover and the two of them continued to run the boardinghouse until they had saved enough money to retire to a small house in the country, where they grew carnations and chrysanthemums to sell in the city. The Nightingale hung the poster proclaiming his artistry in a gilt frame, but he never sang in a nightclub again, and no one missed him. He never accompanied his wife when she visited his stepdaughter, and he never asked about her — not wanting to stir up doubts in his own mind — but he thought of her constantly. The child's image had stayed with him, intact, untouched by the years; she was still the passionate girl he had rejected. If truth were known, as the years went by, the memory of those light bones, that childish hand on his belly, that baby tongue in his mouth, grew to be an obsession. When he embraced the heavy body of his wife, he had to concentrate on those visions, meticulously invoking Elena's image to awaken the always more diffuse impulse of pleasure. Now in his middle years, he went to stores that sold children's clothing and bought cotton underpants and pleasured himself, stroking them and stroking himself. Then he would be ashamed of such salacious moments and he would burn the panties or bury them in a deep hole in the patio in a vain attempt to put them out of his mind. He began to loiter around schools and parks where he could stand at a distance and watch the prepubescent girls who for an all-too-brief moment bore him to the abyss of that unforgettable Thursday.
Elena was twenty-six when she visited her mother for the first time, bringing her boyfriend, an army captain who for years had been begging her to marry him. The two young people — he, not wanting to seem arrogant, in civilian clothes, she laden with presents — arrived on one of those cool November afternoons. Bernal had awaited that visit like a jittery teenager. He stared at himself in the mirror at every opportunity, scrutinizing his image, wondering whether Elena would see any change, or whether in her mind the Nightingale had remained immune to the ravages of time. He had prepared for the meeting, practicing every word and imagining every possible answer. The only possibility he failed to consider was that in the place of the smoldering child who had consigned him to a life of torment he would find an insipid and quite shy young woman. Bernal felt betrayed.
As it grew dark, after the euphoria of the arrival had worn off and mother and daughter had exchanged all their latest news, they carried chairs to the patio to enjoy the cool of evening. The air was heavy with the perfume of carnations. Bernal suggested a glass of wine, and Elena followed him into the house to bring glasses. For a few moments, they were alone, face to face in the narrow kitchen. Bernal, who had waited so long for this opportunity, held Elena by the arm while he told her how it had all been a terrible mistake, how he had been half asleep that morning and had no idea what he was doing, how he had never meant to throw her to the floor or call her what he did, and would she please take pity on him and forgive him, and maybe then he could come to his senses, because for what seemed a lifetime he had been consumed by a constant burning desire for her that fired his blood and poisoned his mind. She stared at him, speechless, not knowing what to answer. What wicked girl was he talking about? She had left her childhood far behind, and the pain of that first rejected love was locked in some sealed compartment of memory. She did not remember any particular Thursday in her past.
Excerpted from Snapshots by Joyce Carol Oates Copyright © 2000 by Joyce Carol Oates. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother||24|
|An Ordinary Woman||90|
|How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)||125|
|A Rose in the Heart of New York||146|
|Up Above Diamond City||185|
|Everything Old Is New Again||228|