Straight with Many Limes

Flor de Cana is Nicaraguan rum.

I’m not a connoisseur of rum. I only drink this rum. Because it is Nicaraguan.

I remember being in Managua, sitting in the courtyard of Casa Bolonia, a squat, sprawling hotel where plywood had been used to make two rooms out of one. In the room where I was staying, half the air conditioner was in my room and the other half, with the controls, was in the room next door.

It was 1988.

I had traveled to Managua with my 15-year old daughter to fetch a little boy who would become my son and her brother. We traveled with a small group who had come to Nicaragua for other reasons but we were together like relatives there because it was foreign and risky. At night, the city was dark and walking was dangerous, not because of people but because of massive holes in the pavement. You never knew where they were, the holes.

It was very hot, thick hot, dripping all the time, and it rained hard every afternoon. By the time night came, we only wanted to drink so we would sit in the courtyard with our friends and the new boy on our laps, and we would talk and laugh about the day and gaze at the new bottle of Flor de Cana on the wrought iron table.

We had tried to find Coke all day but there seemed to be none in the city. In days prior, we’d bought Coke from vendors who gave it to us in plastic bags tied at the top with a twist tie. This is how the Coke came, I don’t remember why.

The trick was to bite a small hole in the corner of the bag and drink the Coke that way. It was chancy, the Coke being likely to run down one’s arm, but the heat made trying worth the effort. So we yearned for a bag of Coke to have with our rum since drinking rum straight seemed extreme or at least something one wouldn’t do in front of one’s daughter, especially with a new son. It appeared all was lost for our rum drinking.

While we puzzled over this, the Nicaraguan boyfriend of a woman in our group, a man who had been a soldier in the Sandinista Army, fought in the jungles up in the mountains, and often carried his knife in his teeth to keep his hands free, stood up and announced we would have limes for our rum! And he pointed to the lime tree in the middle of the courtyard, smiling with glee at the dozens of limes hanging ripe. He picked dozens of limes, slashing each one open on the ceramic tile of the table top.

So we squeezed lime after lime in our plastic cups and poured in the Flor de Cana and the drink was tart, so tart it made our eyes water, but better than anything I had ever drunk. So I think of that every time I unscrew the lid of my bottle of Flor de Cana – that night thirty years ago with the heat and the rum and the limes. All the limes.

The Frosty Limits of Love

So what would you do for love? Walk across the country? Swim the English Channel? Sit on a metal bench at Lambeau Field with 80,000 football zealots in -30 wind chill? For four hours while the sun went down and the wind kicked up and then, afterward, walk the 10 blocks back to your car and sit huddled and mute under blankets for the two hour drive home listening to Sports Talk Radio and looking forward to a stop at a gas station with bright lights and heat blasted from a huge blower mounted on the wall?

Not a question you usually need to answer? Good for you. You see, I’m married to this person. He regards Lambeau Field as a holy place. He doesn’t joke about this.

Howie in Lambeau

I’ve gone to a zero degree game at Lambeau Field. To keep warm, I carried in what we call the German Army sleeping bag which we bought years ago at an army surplus store in Wyoming. Anyway, the sleeping bag looks sort of normal except that it has two sleeves and a hood. Basically, once in the sleeping bag, you’re not going anywhere without hopping although you can still hold a beer or your head if sobbing about your fate.

The delight of seeing the Packers get into the play-offs after a long season of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers watching from the sidelines nursing his broken collarbone was swiftly replaced by my growing dread that we would end up going to the game. Each day, the weather predictions about Sunday’s game became more dire and the lure of cheap Packer tickets more electric.

“If it’s something you really want to do, I’ll do it.” I stood in the kitchen, Topper’s stylish ghosts, George and Marion, sitting on the counter next to me.

“Seriously?” Marion said, her arms folded, swinging her leg back and forth. “You are going to sit outside in insanely freezing weather in a German Army sleeping bag? Why would you do that?”

“Her husband loves football, Marion. It’s obvious. She loves him so she’s offering to go.” George tapped a cigarette on his lighter. “It’s a nice thing. Any man would appreciate it.”

“It’s absurd. Utterly and totally absurd and outrageous. My dear, you have to have been brainwashed. What has become of you?” Her disdain dripped on the counter and formed an awful puddle. This really stung coming from a female ghost from the fifties.

I slapped them both away. There’s no place for harsh judgments in my kitchen.

But really, what was I thinking? Going to Lambeau Field on Sunday to watch the Packers and 49’ers in the 2nd Ice Bowl was like the first episode of a new reality show – Extreme Good Sports – where I guarantee the stars would all be women doing crazy stuff to make somebody else happy. And usually when they weren’t even asked or begged. Just thinking that’s what a good sport would do.

Then this afternoon, the local school system announced they were closing on Monday because of the severe cold that was starting Sunday (Game Day as we call it here), life threatening they called it, and then this text arrived:

“I can get 2 tickets at the 50 yd. line”

“How much?”

“Face value. $125”

“Is this something you really want to do?”

“No.”

No? Well, I would’ve done it.  Already had the German Army sleeping bag out of the attic, fumigated it, made sure no mice homesteaded, wouldn’t want them running amok at Lambeau and now, you say, it’s all for naught? We’ll just sit in the living room with pizza and beer and you’ll smoke a cigar? Which is fine with me, cigar smoke, love it, reminds me of Dad.

Besides, you know me. I’m a really good sport.

____________________
Republished for Howard on the last night of the 2019-2020 football season for fans of the Green Bay Packers. Next year!

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.”