Fish Tales

My husband is cooking a red snapper for dinner. With the head on. Because that’s how sophisticated people cook red snapper. So later at our dinner table, there will be the whole fish lying on its side, its one visible eye unfocused and baked. And then we will dig in, taking whole chunks from the fish’s side while the eye remains, starched open until we strip the fish of everything it has down to its many bones. And then we will throw the fish carcass out, eye and all.

In Nicaragua, years ago, a whole red snapper was served to me by a waiter in a roadside restaurant that had only the fish and one or two other things on the menu, it being a time of great scarcity in the country after the Sandinistas took power and before prosperity came. I had my newly adopted toddler, Joe, on my lap. He was sweaty and sick with diarrhea and his diaper overflowed onto my skirt which I was wearing because, at the time, women in Nicaragua did not wear pants. Now I would be wearing pants.

In any event, I had to take him and my skirt hurriedly to the bathroom where I tried to wash us both in the doll-sized sink. He was too new and too weak to hold on to me so he flopped backward anytime I let go of his back, making it impossible to hold him with one arm and wash with the other. So I put him on the floor below the sink where he looked up at me, seeming to wonder what trick of fate had brought him there under the sink pipes. We returned to the red snapper, still staring at the ceiling, both of us wet but cleansed of the past.

I remember little about the rest of the meal except that I put the white napkin over the fish’s head. It was too much right then to pretend the fish’s face didn’t bother me. I wasn’t sophisticated. I was foreign and midwestern and used to eating fish that had either been beheaded and cleaned by my father or had come frozen for the ages from the grocery store.

So my husband comes into my room just now to ask me about the fish. He tends to buy things that he thinks will be fun to cook and then ask me how to cook those things. He bought the red snapper from a truck that comes from New Orleans to a gas station near where he works. He gets shrimp there, too, which we ate last night and will eat tomorrow. It’s all good stuff, I don’t doubt it. I trust the truck. I do. And my husband has a recipe from the New York Times which, as you probably know, is the gateway to food paradise.

So I tell him (my husband) that he needs to be sure that the fish has been scaled. He seems baffled by this as if he never watched his father scale a fish in the cleaning shed after an early morning fishing trip. My dad would put his finger in the little perch’s or sunfish’s mouth, hold the fish steady with his thumb and then scrape the scales off with a fish scaler. It always bothered me because I figured the fish could feel the scraping. And that became another reason for me to consider my father an unfeeling brute – which he really wasn’t but I was into my fiction.

My husband is downstairs now and I hear pots and pans rattling. There is no fish scaler in the house so he will have to use a knife. In my mind’s eye, I can see the fish unwrapped on the counter, its dead eye scoping out our remodeled kitchen, waiting for what’s next, expecting sympathy from me that I am withholding. This fish is no perch or sunfish. It is a red snapper, after all, a fish of history and substance.

Making Up for Lost Soup

On the topic of soup.

I’m making chicken soup for my daughter who is sick with a cold. She is napping. While she has been napping, I have eaten a bowl of cheese puffs, a slice of actual cheese, a slice of turkey, three stalks of celery, and two chocolate chip cookies. Other people’s stuff is always tastier, in my opinion, although I worry that her six-year sons will notice the erosion of their cheese puff stash. They’re at school, happily, so I didn’t have to share nor silence their protests.

I like making chicken soup. I usually use the leftover bones and whatnot from a roast chicken but this soup has original chicken in it, five big plump thighs. I first made non-leftover chicken chicken soup a year or so ago for street outreach. It was insanely below zero and so I thought chicken soup would be perfect for homeless people not thinking very long about how it would instantly go cold even in a styrofoam cup wrapped in tin foil. When the outreach team leader later told me that a woman thought my soup was “divine,” it was life changing. So much so that I am now permanently on this course of full body chicken soup.

My goal when I was a young woman was to be an earth mother with a long flowing skirt and flowers behind my ear. I thought I should mix potions from rose hips and grow my own sprouts. I did grow my own sprouts but failed on the flowing skirt front because that look didn’t work with high-heeled boots and the boots were essential to walking on the wild side, as they used to say. So as much as I wish I had, I never made homemade chicken soup when my daughter was a child. I opened a can of Campbell’s.

There’s no taking that fact back. And, although I’d like to, there’s no chance of creating a new narrative of my daughter’s childhood by pretending that I always made chicken soup from scratch. I could put a new slant on a lot of things that happened with her when she was little, give the facts a new interpretation, do a bit of parental gaslighting, “remember when I used to make this for you when you were a kid?” But it wouldn’t work. She remembers the can.

On Mother’s Day

I became a mother at the age of 24.

Sometimes I wish that fact gave me a pass on the first 10,000 mistakes I made. I was so young. What did I know? But there are no passes for any of us. We are held to the impossible standard of the great mothers our kids’ friends have.

As a new mom, I had two sources of guidance. My mother’s famous line: “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” And Dr. Spock which I read so much and so hard that the pages came away from the paperback binding. I would read what Dr. Spock said and then check back 99 times to make sure what I read was what I thought I read.

I was a mess as a new mother.

My own mother was MIA at the time, probably because I wanted it that way, I don’t remember. I’m betting I wanted everyone to believe I knew exactly what I was doing. But I had no clue. And no one to ask. No friends with babies, we were new to town. And my husband, as nice and kind as he was, had never had a baby either. He was as in the dark as me but got to put on a suit in the morning and go to work.

I remember the doctor telling me to put my baby to sleep on her stomach and turn her feet outward otherwise she would be pigeon-toed. Looking back, this seems unbelievable, that this was the big problem we needed to address. My pigeon-toed baby. What about feeding her? What about her crying? What about my life? Would I still have one? Or was that over now?

I read in Dr. Spock and in Our Bodies Ourselves about breastfeeding but the instructions seemed written for better women than me, women who were at home in their own bodies, women who were confident about their role in the world, women who wore long floral skirts and shawls, had wild hair falling over their beautiful faces, women who never thought about failing as mothers. They weren’t my people. I didn’t have any people. I just had me.

I ran back to work as fast as I could.

I look back at all this now and realize that my mother was right. “Children are like weeds. They grow no matter what you do.” Babies become toddlers become children become teenagers become adults and unless there is a catastrophic intervention, the process is a study in resilience. Children can withstand an extraordinary amount of incompetence.

They see, they learn, they sort out.

They forgive.

“Oh well, my mom did the best she could.”

It’s that forgiveness that makes Mother’s Day what it is. An erasing of mistakes. An appreciation of constancy. Children love that about us, that we never quit on them. That we may have been late and ill-prepared and distracted and short-tempered but we picked them up, we held them, we carried them to the car, we made them dinner, we put them to bed, we came in the night when they cried. And we got up the next morning and yelled at them to hurry and we started over again.

Day after day, without fail.

Photo by Gláuber Sampaio on Unsplash

Now I Know

A few years ago, we took our granddaughter camping. It rained all night, thundered with lightening strikes, and in the morning everything was soaked but the day was bright and clear.

We went hiking up a trail to a lookout where we could see all of Devil’s Lake. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine swimming across it. And I right away wanted to go down the hill to the lake to swim.

Of course, when we got there the shore was full of people. It was a vast, shallow lake and a favorite for families especially those with little kids. I took my granddaughter’s hand, she was about eight then, and we waded into the water.

“Look at all the little fish!” I said. A school of baby fish weaved through our legs, tiny slivers of silver grazing our legs, tickling us. It made me happy to see the fish. It was magical. “Put your hands in the water, maybe we can catch one.”

The fish swam away and my granddaughter yelled, “I want to get out!” “I want to get out now!”

So I pulled her out deeper, thinking that if we got out of the shallows where the little fish were skittering about, she would throw herself into swimming and we could have a good time. We had done that before. Swum and jumped, dodged and ducked. It was something we had always done together.

“I can’t stay here!” “I have to get out!” Now she was screaming as loud as she could. Other swimmers stood up in the water to look at her. People on shore stopped what they were doing. It was alarming, hearing her scream so loud. I tried to hug her, pull her up out of the water but it didn’t do any good. She just kept screaming.

It was unbelievable to me.

I smoothed the hair out of her eyes and tried to get her to stop screaming and look at me. “We’ve gone swimming in lakes before. They all have fish, honey.”

“But I didn’t know the fish were there. Now I know.”

Skater Guy

My husband told me this morning that he had a dream about us. In the dream, I was in Key West and he was in Key Largo. If you know the Florida Keys, you know that Key Largo is about ninety miles from Key West, driving on the Keys’ only serious road, U.S. 1.

The interesting part isn’t that we were separated although that is a mystery since we are so rarely apart unless we are working which we would never do in the Keys. The interesting part is this. In his dream, he decided to use a skateboard to travel the 90 miles so we could be together.

It’s not like me to describe the dreams of other people but this one was an example of such extraordinary valor that I just had to share it. It’s such a long way to go and sometimes with heavy traffic, all those people in a hurry to see the Southernmost Point of the United States, any one of those flashy vacation convertibles could run him down on his skateboard but he persevered or at least I think he did. He didn’t say how the dream ended.

Lunch at Brownie’s Cafe

“How’s your omelet?”

“Good,” he answered. “Unusual, because there’s cheese inside and on top, too.” But it wasn’t gooey, drenched in cheese, the omelet was dry with brown edges like the cook wanted to make sure everything was cooked hard. It was how I would make an omelet, leaving nothing to chance. There would never be anything runny about an omelet I made. I felt at home at Brownie’s, they did things right here.

My BLT was three inches thick, a layer of well-done bacon and then a fat slice of tomato and a wedge of iceberg lettuce between two slices of toasted white bread. I took a bite of the coleslaw and slid the little dish across the table. “Taste it, Miracle Whip.” He did but didn’t mind it. I puzzled over that, how it didn’t bother him when he’d only eaten real mayonnaise the entire 35 years I’ve known him.

We talked about this for a while and then dropped it. There are entire swaths of the country that use Miracle Whip and we will never know that until we travel to those places because who, after all, would advertise this particular fact to prospective visitors? It did make me consider my earlier affection for Brownie’s to have been too hasty.

At the next table, an older couple sat on opposite sides and ends of the table, as far away from each other as it was possible to be. It seemed their intention was to not have to look at each other, they might have been wiser to sit at the counter. He ordered chicken-fried steak and she ordered a taco salad and when their lunches came, they ate, looking down at their plates, him with his arm on the table and her with her arm clutching her purse in her lap. They said not a single word the entire time.

I wondered whether they disliked each other or had just run out of things to say. You can always inquire about the taco salad, I thought. “How’s your taco salad? Does it have Miracle Whip on it?”

At the next table, another older couple sat directly across from each other. He was a very old, small, Western dude with a button shirt tucked into old jeans held up by a leather belt with a big old buckle. She was twice his size in height and weight, wearing a t-shirt and big, flappy jeans, and her hair was pulled back from her face and held with a barrette like she might have worn it when she was 17.

They were also serious eaters. She was eating French fries in such a careful and appreciative way that I wanted to order some. She dipped each fry in catsup and brought it to her lips like it was escargot prepared by a famous French chef. It was beautiful to watch. He ate with his arm on the table like the other man, but his arm seemed relaxed somehow like he as there to enjoy his soup or chili as much as his wife relished her fries. They didn’t talk either but they didn’t seem unhappy or mad.

We talked. First about the omelet and then about the coleslaw, then about Yuma and how far we were from the cut-off for Ajo and Organ Pipe National Park where we were headed before going back to Phoenix through Gila Bend. We talked a little bit about work, a little about our grandkids, some about other road trips we might take, and a little about Brownie’s and how we’d managed to find such a place without even looking.

We hadn’t run out of things to talk about, at least not yet.