An Excerpt from Chapter 2, WE SHARE THE SAME SKY
Who would think that wandering aimlessly throughout Midtown
could be calming? It is not quiet, it is not serene. Perhaps it is a
melding with the constant movement of the masses that is tranceinducing.
Whatever it is, I find it odd and pleasant. But, why
question what works?
Rizzoli Bookstore catches my eye. Here I am in the city at last,
and I can’t shake the habitual need of a good book and a place to
crash. Rizzoli’s is the quintessential bookstore. Built-in oak bookshelves
run from floor to ceiling in the three storied space. The open
staircase and rooms are lit with chandeliers, although the interior
is flooded with natural light from windows that make up the entire
front facade. I would shop here for no other reason than to take
pleasure in the sheer beauty of the place.
I browse the children’s section and try to find a gift for the kids.
Some of my earliest memories are related to books. Curled up in
her lap, Mother would read to me, coax me into following with her;
running my finger across the words, I trailed her motions from left
to right. Moving through the book, we spent as much time discussing
the illustrations as we did the meaning. Always busiest during
those days before I entered school, I knew this was precious time
she set aside especially for me.
I cannot help but smile when my random search is interrupted
when I come across the Miroslav Sasek collection. This is
Rome reminds me of a dear childhood friend. How many times,
I wonder, did she carry it and others back and forth between our
houses tucked away in an old yellow Samsonite suitcase she had
covered with stickers?
Scanning the section further, I notice they don’t have a copy of
Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. There
isn’t a bookstore in all the South that doesn’t have it and Harper
Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird up front and on display. With good
reason, gifted storytellers are held in much esteem in our region.
Storytelling seems a talent bestowed before birth, rather than being
acquired with time and knowledge.
Books brand within the heart a place that is all their own. As a
child, Beatrix Potter was my favorite author and was an easy bribe
that Mother would use to get me to behave during church services.
If I managed to mind my manners throughout the sermon,
she would let me visit the tiny library while she straightened her
Sunday school classroom.
One afternoon she took longer than usual and as I sat there turning
the glossy pages, I thought how wonderful it would be to take the
book home. Not check it out, but take it, for it to be mine. Sliding
off my Mary Janes so they didn’t click against the hardwood floor,
I tip-toed to her classroom and peeked through the door. Sure that
she was thoroughly preoccupied arranging art projects and cleaning
away the paints, I took the book and slid it under the backseat of our
car. After my bath that night I reread it, ran my fingers over the same
glossy illustrations then tucked it away underneath my bed. But,
when I rolled over to say my prayers, I realized I couldn’t.
The following Sunday I returned it to the library and apologized.
Home from church and still filled with guilt, I walked down
the road to my best friend’s house. Since it seemed we often wound
up in trouble together, I thought she might be the best person with
whom I should confide. Sitting at the kitchen table, we made pineapple
sandwiches and listened to her mother carry on a conversation
with Ricardo Montalbán who was on TV.
We slathered mounds of mayo on soft white bread, tore
slices of pineapple to fit, then crammed our mouths full. These were
our favorite summer time sandwiches and they had become an
afternoon ritual. In between mouth-fulls, I told her what I’d done
then asked her the all consuming question. “Do you think I am
going to hell?”
Laughter in the living room rose above the noise of the TV. Her
mother came into the room, walked to the table and sat down with us.
She asked if I would make her a sandwich.
I nodded yes and was glad. It gave my eyes a place to go, helped
to ease my embarrassment. She took the sandwich then and tried
it, saying between bites “People from Alaska don’t eat pineapple
sandwiches.” I almost reminded her that she was Mexican, but took
another bite instead. I knew that by trying my sandwich, she was
being nice. Besides, she couldn’t fuss with a full-mouth.
“Now, your people are Baptist, right?” “Yes mam,” I said, trying
not to look down. “And you are saved, isn’t that right?” “Yes mam,”
I responded quickly. “Then why do you worry that you will go to
hell if you are saved and your church believes that once saved always
I had to think about this a minute. I had heard this quoted
often enough, once used in defense after a certain man in my family
stated without thought that Sunday morning fishing was better than
fishing any other day of the week. And, then I told her the truth,
“Because, I don’t believe that people who keep doing bad things get
to go to heaven just because they once got saved. Unless people
who do bad things are really, really sorry and pray for forgiveness, I
think they go to hell with all the other people who do bad things,”
I explained. Putting her hand on top of mine, she laughed and said,
“Child, you are not Baptist at all! You are Catholic!”
It would be years later before I realized that, for me, comparing
the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church and conservative
Protestant Church was much like comparing the platforms of the
Democratic and Republican Parties. While I agreed with many
beliefs and issues from each, I could not agree with all from either.
This shared meal and conversation is my last memory of the family
with whom I was so close. At the end of summer, my parents purchased
land for our new home and we moved from our small neigh-borhood out into the country.
My friend and her parents returned
to Alaska. But, our common, once shared love of books continued.
Back outside into the city and noise, the sun is shining and I
decide that sightseeing, squeezed in with the few stores I want to
visit, might not be a bad thing. On Madison Avenue, I pause to
take in the Roosevelt Hotel New York. Built in 1924, it was dubbed
the “Grand Dame of Madison Avenue”. I make my way inside. A
stairway leads guests up into the lobby. A magnificent chandelier,
marbled floors and the black ironwork immediately remind me of
New Orleans. How wonderful it would have been to be a guest here
during the twenties, engulfed in the bustle of gay nightlife!
Not having anything else nearby I care to see, I head for Bergdorf
Goodman, and wish again that it was the holiday season, that
their famous store-front windows were decorated for Christmas.
Basement Level, I find the beauty department and perfume.
I think that my love of perfume began with an obsession for
bottles. Later it was an association of scent. There have been times
when I have caught a sliver, a hint of a scent; I remember it, but
cannot at that moment place it, rather it is only the pleasant sensation
of association I recall. Chanel No 5, fox fur and pointy high
heels remind me of my GrandMosie readying to go out on the
town; short platinum hair curled and pinned. Lemon and verbena
lotion mingled with an earlier dabbing of Chloe remind me of my
Grandmother Libby, always elegant, even when tending her flower
beds; auburn locks tucked beneath a wide brimmed straw hat.
Looking about, I could make a wish list a mile long. Everything
about this place calls out to the female in me; white marble floors,
colorful glass jars set atop white, French-style cases. The place is
both very modern and chic. Moving from counter to counter, I find
myself lingering over the Coco Mademoiselle. Hints of patchouli
and orange have me walking away wanting.
Next I head to Takashimaya for the flower arrangements, tarry
for a while admiring the gardenias and orchids, ponder a pot of
ginger tea and finger sandwiches, then decide I’d rather have real
food and so hail a taxi to Lower East Side.
Arriving at Katz’s, I pile my belongings onto the table and slide into
Katz’s Delicatessen opened in the Lower East Side in 1888.
The aroma, so wonderfully rich, is agonizing. I look about. It seems
nothing has changed since I was here in the early 90s! The establishment
opened over a hundred years ago and became a favorite
neighborhood eatery. They even provide the same military shipping
for our soldiers oversees that became so popular during World War
II with the slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the Army.”
The menu offers too much! “New York Egg Cream with chocolate
or vanilla syrup” jumps from the menu. Mixed with milk and a little
seltzer it is listed as Heaven on Earth. Surprisingly, it doesn’t contain
egg. Smiling, I notice it is only offered in Large or X-Large, so dessert
will be first. When it arrives, the waiter pauses to ask, “Well,
what do you think?”
“It is very similar to an old fashioned ice cream soda, but better,”
I tell him, not just being polite.
It is impossible to be unhappy while eating anything that holds
even the slightest semblance to ice cream. I remember stopping at
a cafe for a sundae after a day of shopping with my aunt Karen
on my first trip to New York. The waitress had set before us a
monstrous dessert unlike any sundae I had ever seen. Of course,
this was long before there was such a thing as Cold Stone Creamery
or Maggie Moo’s where ice creams and toppings are blended
into strange and wonderful confections. My favorite way to eat
ice cream, however, is the way my Pop-Pop prepared it. He would
pack a tall glass with store bought chocolate ice cream, then fill
it with cold milk and place it in the freezer. He left it there just
long enough for the milk to ice over. The chocolate took on a thick
frosty consistency, icy around the edges. The mix of almost frozen
milk against the icy chocolate was incomparable. I wonder how
many valuable memories I have lost along the way. So many I am sure.
And yet, the memories where food and family are intertwined
are most often remembered.
Scanning the menu a second time because I cannot choose, I
notice they offer tongue. I thought only Southerners still ate these
things? Tongue, tripe, knuckles, ears, feet or snout, some things
are meant to be thrown out! That is unless they are cooked down,
rendered unrecognizable, and provide the rich base for black-eyed
peas, pintos, or stew. Liver is a delicious exception.
I decide on the corned beef, which the menu states requires a
full month of dry curing. A gentleman seated at a neighboring table
is presented with his Cheese steak just as I’ve placed my order. If
he were still within earshot, I’d recall my waiter, but he is too far
away and caught up in conversation with someone who must be
a local. I sit and sip my dessert. People watching, I try to pick out
other tourists. We are easy to detect. Nearby, a couple argues and
it is apparent by the disdain with which they regard each other that
an agreement may not be reached any time soon.
For every problem, is there a solution? I have been told that
there is and I have sat long in debate on why so often it is that
people refuse the answer. Dismissive of the solution, people instead
cling to anger or personal agendas. My friend and I had discussed
it at some length when in closing he tied the answer up neatly,
stating, “For there to be a compromise, something has to be more
important than self. In choosing one thing, you must be willing
to give up the other. Rarely do you get the cake, the platter it sits
upon, the china, the silverware and someone to feed it to you.”
Elbow deep in corned beef, I’ve yet to eat so much that I cannot
hear when I notice the already raised voices of the impassioned pair
rise yet higher. The next question comes quiet and fierce, “What do
I have to do for this to be over?” The query matches the scowl on his
face. She says nothing, just stands and walks away. And, I look past
them to the waiter who lingers, as if searching for something to say.
What is necessary to gain emotional independence? Can it be
removed like shellac, this film of need -scrapped away, flaked off,
filed down, down to nothingness? In reality when you are guarded
from the pain that can be inflicted by another, there is only so much
happiness you can allow. When you begin to deaden an area of
the heart, can it be contained? Or, once allowed to set in, does the
deadening continue to spread like Gangrene and rot away at what
little good flesh is left? Packing away the remaining majority of my
sandwich, I head back out into the streets, southward again.
The streets become more brilliant in color, and heavy with scent.
Teenagers loiter around the storefronts. No one attempts to send
them away. Chinatown! Fish and turtle fresh from the boat line
the walkway and crabs with brilliant unbound blue claws move
about within tattered baskets, hapless, oblivious to their demise.
Rummaging through the piles of trinkets in a souvenir shop, I realize
I am at a loss. Shuffling things, I call the children. Telling them
where I am and describing everything, I ask what they would like,
then purchase a flat screen print fan for Anderson and a variety of
Chinese coins for Isaac.
A sign in a restaurant across the street advertises crispy fried soft
shell crabs and steamed mussels. Another lists Dim Sum. I will
have to return! The streets are full of people and full of stuff. I like
this overcrowded, busy feel, with people smiling and chatting in the
warm sun. The place seems so contained; a contradiction I admit,
because you side-step something strewn across every curb.
A fantastic shop catches my eye. From floor to ceiling, there are
wares stored in clear plastic containers and bins. The place appears
almost a mix between an herb shop, modern apothecary and a
county farmer’s Co-Op where planters purchase feed and seed.
One could teach science from this shop or Macbeth!
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Bins are everywhere, filled with waxgourd, cassia bark, abalone,
tiandong, turtle shells, shark fins, dried octopus and sea cucumber,
cordyceps! All these would seem so odd had I not grown up in a
region chock-full of home remedies and medicine based on so much
tradition and mountain folklore. How I remember afternoons spent
foraging for persimmon to rub on skin blistered with poison oak or
ivy, digging up sassafras root to steep for a cleansing tea, rolling slim
rabbit tobacco and clove cigarettes to smoke so that our lungs would
be strong. Queen Anne’s Lace and honey are supposedly wonderful
for ulcers -which it is that truly aids, who knows. For years, we
kept English honey bees not just for the love of that golden sweet
substance but also to ward off regional allergies and treat burns. The
idea is that the honey produced from the same pollen laden plants
will reduce one’s allergic reactions during hay fever season.
Many of the plants we used as medicine were toxic in their raw,
natural state. So, as children, we were taught to be wary. Foolish
it is to go foraging and prepare the unfamiliar. I once knew a man
I will not name who kept a jar of Clay County moonshine laced
with wild bilberry that floated around bruised in the bottom. It was
reported to be an ailment for the eyes, but somehow the concoction
seemed to defeat its proposed purpose. And, of course, there
is Southern Elderberry wine made from the plant’s delectable fruit.
Certain species are as noxious as the polk weed we boil off in the
beginning preparation of polk salat. A rule of thumb learned early
in rural life is that if you don’t prepare it yourself, you don’t eat it.
Old Man Waldrop used to pluck the poisonous berries from
the polk stalk and chew them. “To cleanse the blood,” he would
explain. Our mothers said this was foolish. But in this case, we children
were the wiser; we knew that man was so mean the devil didn’t
even want him.
Last year, when I began planning this trip, I purchased three
guide books of the city. While mapping out Chinatown, I was
surprised to find that there are almost 300 restaurants within the
neighborhood’s boundaries. Some sounded better than others, and
although I had my list of wants written out well before I left home,
I have found that once I get into an area several things tend to
dictate choice. The first two are my mood, and the prolific bragging
of locals. Often as not, however, I choose a place to dine based on
nothing more than the way a place feels.
Today, I am looking for an eatery called Sweet-n-Tart Cafe. My
new friend Karen suggested I try the congee, a type of rice porridge.
In the South, there is a particular fondness for a dessert that is
also considered a staple. In our home that staple was rice pudding.
It ranked right up there with the various biscuit topped cobblers:
blackberry, peach or sweet potato. Rice pudding even held its own
at the table when presented along with butter pound cake. All
these family recipes were handed down over the years. Along the
way, others crept in. Some were come across accidently and yet
others long searched for -like the recipe for Lillian Carter’s Peanut
Butter Pound Cake.
Rice pudding back home is a buttery, dense pudding loaded with
vanilla, sugar and a pinch of cinnamon. The overall consistency can
be described as velvety. Usually it arrives at the table crusted with
a browned sugar and butter topping. It is wonderful hot from the
oven, at room temperature and even straight from the fridge, ice
cold. Like banana nut bread, rice pudding is a staple breakfast food
as often as it is dessert.
During my childhood, rice pudding appeared most often when
times were lean. Those were the days when a summer evening meal
consisted of fresh scrubbed vegetables from the garden and fish
from the trotline. Lean dinners in the winter were often bowls of
pintos and cornbread or skillet fried potatoes with onions. As the
seasons changed, fish gave way to game: fried dove or quail with
gravy, braised rabbit, smoked turkey or venison. All of these could
be taken within a five mile radius of our home. The variety may not
have been great, but there was usually plenty. Biscuits with butter,
cornbread with sorghum, molasses or honey -these were present at
almost every meal. Other times, they were the meal. More staples.
How often I sat at the kitchen table during the late evening with
Grandpa, feasting on only this and black coffee. I wish I could
remember the things we talked about and the stories he told as
clearly as I remember the food. Just as there was always Grace before
dinner in one grandparent’s house, there were always stories in the
other. Rice pudding, however, was common at both dinner tables.
Cash Only is posted on the door to the tiny restaurant. As of
yet, this has been the hardest adjustment I’ve had to make in the
city. Thank goodness the guidebooks warn tourist up-front. If not,
it would probably be as close as you could get to having a Southern
woman in true distress. At the counter, I order the Congee with
Hong Dou. “Good for you,” says the man nodding his approval and
making a circular motion with his hand around the stomach.
“Thank you,” I tell him. It is all I know to say.
Congee is made by cooking rice with water until it breaks down
into a porridge-like consistency. It is usually flavored one of two
ways: salty and robust with flavorful meat, or glutinous and sweet
with red beans, dates and palm sugar. I am in want of the latter.
The congee arrives and the serving is more than I anticipated.
It is a meal and has the wet consistency of porridge rather than
the thickness I associate with rice or bread pudding which, when
scooped, holds together. I have to admit to being somewhat putoff
by the addition of beans. Trying it though, I am pleased and
notice a chewiness that regular rice pudding does not have. It is
warm, sweet and heavy, very much a comfort food. Admittedly, it
is probably healthier than the rice pudding I grew up on because it
is cooked without butter and cream.
I hail a taxi, but after several blocks the feeling of being caged con-
sumes me so I ask to be let out. I need to move, to walk. There are
so many people out and about. It is hard to get used to.
Rosy peaches the size of my fist catch my eye. Walking through
the open store, I concentrate on breathing in the clean smell of fresh
produce. Although the rich scent of dirt has been washed away,
there lingers another that calms; describable only as the scent ofsummon. There are so many packages! I purchase a box of fortune
cookies, pay and walk back out into the crowds.
This visual shopping, or window shopping as Mother calls it, is a
method I use to fill my tank. When I find myself stuck in a funk this
uncomplicated appreciation supplies a quick jump-off, a charge that
sets me back on track. I do not need to own these things to enjoy
them and because there is no predetermined direction or reason,
only leisure, it provides relaxation. The textures and colors I absorb
and inadvertently my needs are filled.
The warmth of the sun is veiled again by the gathering of storm
clouds. Collectively they attempt to blanket out the last sunlight
of the day; as if in protest, colors along the street burst against this
Are there fixed stages to this madness we call life, I wonder. At
varying times we are consumed by different needs, different worries
and different desires. Is there a pattern? I believe there is. My life
is not as different, has not been so different, from that of so many
women. Many of us face similar obstacles and we draw strength and
understanding from each other’s experiences. The discoveries that
lie between us, between the layers we create together –this is life!
Yes, I believe there are patterns, just as there are with the weather,
the seasons, the stages of life.
But, why is it that I have spent the majority of my mature existence
trying to improve myself, my place in life, only to look back
longingly for the person I used to be?
As a child I did not worry about the past or the future. I did not
look so severely upon myself. Nor, did I fret over the actions of others.
Every day was looked forward to.
The trip so far is proving relaxing, but I am far from understanding
what I need or even being sure how I feel. I cannot let go of the
immense disappointment I feel, the anger or even the resentment.
My confidence has been destroyed. Everything had seemed just as
Journaling is supposed to help, but I can feel waves of angst rising
within me, threatening to overpower all rational sense. Emotions –
how quickly they can consume! When happy they elate the soul,
when unpleasant they can drown even the strongest. I must focus
on the positive –I am healthy. My children are healthy and happy.
I have wonderful parents, a brother and sister-in-law and nephews.
The city is exciting and I am here on a trip I’ve always dreamt of. I
have had two good days. I will have another tomorrow. I will be o.k.
This feeling will not last; the bad passes just as quickly as the good.
It only seems to remain longer.
Recognizing that I must have something to distract myself until
I am able to sleep, I quietly put away my journal to read, think
on the words of others for a while, then discover my old journal,
unknowingly packed and so I begin to read and reflect on it as well.
Back and forth I move between the novels I love and the journal,
trying to find some understanding without getting too caught up
in the memories. It is impossible to see things clearly when you are
too close. Clarity comes with distance and time.
*Note 57th Street’s Rizzoli Bookstore was demolished; the domed ceilings, woodwork, chandeliers –all of it, gone.
ELIZABETH MOZLEY MCGRADY
WE SHARE THE SAME SKY, a memoir