Lobster Songs

June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

JC, this one’s for you.

On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out. I drove 12 miles to an upscale grocery in the suburbs, stood in a long line, chatted with people, bought three lobsters, stood in another long line to have them cooked, brought them home (12 more miles), took one to pieces, used it to make a lobster omelet for my husband who took three bites and said “I don’t care for this.”

That’s the story. My husband objects to this story. He says that he ate “half” the omelet and that’s more than three bites. It’s more than three bites if you’re two years old. We’re talking two eggs and about a third of a cup of a lobster. How many bites can there be?  Anyway, I finished eating it for him and he thinks that’s adequate compensation.

It was a great dilemma for me whether or not to buy the lobster in the first place. We’re in the midst of a serious family crisis involving our grown-up daughter. We need every dollar, so who am I to go frittering away the stuff on things so inessential as lobsters? And yet, they were only $10. That’s three times what they would be on the Island.  But this is land-locked Ohio, where the only lobsters usually available are those miserable creatures stacked in grocery store tanks.

I sort of remembered that when we were newly wed in Montana that my husband humored me with a special Lobster dinner date at the Grand hotel the next town over. Larry the owner had gotten a bushel of lobsters shipped in from Boston and of course they cost the earth. They’d been cooked too long and were tough. Then there was all that business with plastic bibs and drawn butter and linen tablecloths and some kind of terrible white wine.

I know that there are other songs the lobster sings, and thinking that those might elicit more enthusiasm from my spouse, I head down the garden path to the car.

The parking lot of the upscale grocery is very full. Christmastime full. Last year they were out of lobsters in two hours. Inside, the line runs past the machine where they make the fresh mozzarella, along the deli case promising an English Ploughman’s lunch, past the island of organic strawberries ($6 a quart) up to the bakery cases full of petit fours and tiramisu. I find my place at the end, behind a man in a gray t-shirt. He isn’t particularly hairy, but from behind his shape makes me think of a silverback gorilla.

The line is long, but it’s moving quickly. A man comes by with a pad and a pencil. Is there anything I’d like from the deli while I’m waiting? I’d love a stack of pancakes, but that doesn’t seem likely so I just smile and shake my head. “No thanks.”

A foreign woman comes along with a bottle of white wine (“on sale today for just eleven dollars”) offering samples. I can see in the line ahead of me that plenty of people have taken her up on it.

“Not at nine in the morning, thanks just the same.”

“Well,” the woman says. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”

We’ve rounded the corner, and I can see the mound of lobsters up ahead, stacked up on a fixture like so many little brown grapefruit. I see the drill: tell the man how many you want, he puts them in a bag and you take the bag to the cashier, and if you like you can stop outside and have them cooked. I’m glad I don’t have to look them in their little eyes (on stalks, yet) and choose. You, and you, and you. Your luck ran out today, lobsters. Really, though, their luck ran out some time ago.

In front of the pile of lobsters is a conventionally handsome young man.  He could be a day trader or a hedge fund manager, but he is dressed very improbably in a polo shirt and a pair of melon-colored foul weather bibs. The press release from the grocery had promised that there’d be someone from the lobster boat on hand, but this is one super clean lobsterman.

“Three,” I tell the other man, the one packaging the lobsters, and I look away, down the wine aisle, as he chooses. He hands me the bag (white, with a red lobster on the side) and smiles. I take it and make a beeline for the cashier. When the bag rustles in my hand, I feel slightly ill. That’s ridiculous, I know. Look at all the people standing in line to pay for their white bag of arthropods. Over in that line a mother and her daughter, who looks about eight, are delighting over the antics of their little rustlers. I mean, what is the matter with me? It’s not like we’re leading veal calves up to the checkout.

A nice woman about my age, which means not as young as we used to be, opens up her check stand and motions me over.

“There are three,” I say, and I can hear the apology in my own voice. “I wish I could just get a ticket or something in here and pick up the cooked ones outside,” I confess. “I can’t stand feeling them moving around in the bag.”

“I know,” the woman commiserates. “I can’t either.”

Outside, there’s another line of people waiting to get their lobsters cooked.  Though this line is shorter, it’s slower, the cooking and cooling of lobsters being a bit more complex than just packing them in a bag.  I am sandwiched between a couple who moved here from New Jersey and a woman who grew up in Wiscasset, Maine and is now talking to her mother on the cell phone.  It seems the lobster guy knows the man who runs the local lobster pound. (That’s lobster-wholesaling operation, by the way, not where they take stray crustaceans.)

“Brendan Ready,” the woman is saying into her phone. “Yes, he says he knows Albert.”

At the front of the line, under a white tent, lobsters are being poured from bag to kettle and fished from the kettle into a trunk full of crushed ice and water. There’s a kind of festival atmosphere, and if you saw a photograph of the scene you might think it was taken on the coast somewhere. Standing there though leaves no doubt that we are smack dab in the middle of Ohio.

Brendan Ready is mingling with the crowd, answering questions like “How long do I cook them at home?” (Fifteen minutes.) And “How do I keep them alive until it’s time to cook them” (Put them in a crisper under damp newspaper.) And “Do you ever get sick of lobster?”  He laughs.

“No, I never get sick of it. I could eat lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”  Later I will look up the “Catch a Piece of Maine” phrase that’s emblazoned on his polo shirt. It turns out to be a company in Portland that seems to have made a very successful business selling the idea of a sustainable fisheries model through direct marketing and online sales. Website photos of the company’s other lobster boat captains include those of men who look like they do go down to the sea in ships.

Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey are discussing with Miss Wiscasset the different eating habits of people when confronted with a lobster on a plate. Miss W. is shocked at the people who don’t eat every last bit.

“Well, not the brain of course,” she says, referring to a collection of ganglia that amounts to about the same as a grasshopper’s brain. We all take great relief that a brain that size is not contemplating the meaning of life as it’s tossed into a pot of boiling water.

“I can’t believe some people who just eat the tail and the claws and throw the rest out,” she continues. “There’s meat in the legs, and the tomalley is a great delicacy.” Mr. and Mrs. Jersey don’t look quite convinced.

“Well, sometimes there’s just so much lobster that you don’t have time to mess with much beyond the claws and the tail,” I say. They all look at me as if they hadn’t noticed that I’d been standing there next to them for the last fifteen minutes. “I grew up on Prince Edward Island. We ate a lot of lobster.”

We are at the head of the line now and Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey hand over their two lobsters in a bag, and someone puts two other cooked lobsters in a bag and off they go. Before I know it, I have three cooked lobsters in a bag in my hand and I am headed for the car. The three I carried from inside the store, feeling their every rustle in my viscera, those have just been dispatched to lobster heaven, and in fifteen more minutes, when I am nearly home, they will be sent home with someone else.

There was a lot of lobster for us on the Island. My stepfather was a doctor there, and at times one lobsterman or another would turn up with a bushel of lobsters fresh from the pot.  I remember one afternoon the lobsters arrived very much alive. A large pot was set to boil on the old stove and my stepsister and I tossed them in a few at a time. Though the claws were pegged with wooden plugs, the lobsters were still lively and could easily twist from your hand.

“I’d like to be, under the sea in an octopus’ garden, in the shade . . .” I sang, tossing the flailing lobster in headfirst. Splash! Children, if not cruel, are certainly callous.

Those little wooden pegs, as it turns out, were the sole industry of the tiny Acadian town of West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where they were hand-whittled. It was an invention that revolutionized the lobster industry, and in the 1930s West Pubnico rightfully declared itself “The Lobster Plug Capital of the World.”

Unfortunately the pegs broke through the membrane of the lobster flesh and allowed for bacteria to collect there, a potential source of contamination. By the mid-eighties, 500 million wooden plugs later, the last of the pegs are gone, replaced with rubber bands.

The bands, like the pegs before them, make the lobsters not only easier to handle, but keeping them from killing and eating each other.

“Oh,” you say with dawning awareness. In fact that’s one of the reasons lobsters are not farmed like oysters and shrimp and salmon. The other is that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach market size and that’s a long time to be feeding something that keeps trying to eat the rest of your inventory.

Lobsters are sorted and banded on the boat, using a tool that looks something like needle nosed pliers to stretch the strong bands over the claws. This is a point where the little beasts can lose their claws, making them culls. Claws get caught, break off, and lobsters will sometimes shoot off their own claws. (There should be a joke I could make here, especially since a claw-less lobster is called a “pistol,” but it just won’t come.)

The Commercial Fisheries News has advice to minimize claw loss due to banding: “Hold the lobster in one hand by the base of the carapace while banding with the other hand. If the lobster is too large to hold in one hand, place the lobster on a surface and hold securely. Both of these options give the lobster a sense of security, for it is not dangling in mid-air.”

Lobster traps (also called “lobster pots” which leads to all manner of semantic confusion) are baited with flesh: herring, hotdogs, chicken necks, mackerel. A 1997 study in Prince Edward Island found that lobsters caught with mackerel were weak and lethargic. Perhaps it’s their version of a turkey dinner.

After the second world war, a company called LobLure (not to be confused with contemporary lobster scent bait of the same name) experimented with a wide spectrum of artificial bait ranging from women’s sanitary pads soaked in herring oil, bricks marinated in kerosene and, inexplicably, white coffee mugs.

The bait bag is tied to the sill in the kitchen, that’s the first chamber of a lobster trap, the one before the parlor. Some traps have more than one parlor. Wooden traps are still in use, though wire mesh has become popular. All of them are to have a door large enough to let the immature lobster recognize the error of his ways and show himself out.

When the traps are pulled, “shorts” and berried hens are thrown back, the others are sorted and banded; or if you’re lucky and they’re cooking on the Miss Jeanne M., are thrown straight into the pot.

An average “hen” lobster will produce 8000 eggs or “berries” at a time. It takes ten months for the “berries” to hatch into baby lobsters, or “crickets” as they’re sometimes called, and the colder the water the longer it takes. For every 50,000 eggs it is estimated that only two will survive to market size. All the lobstermen throw back the hens with eggs, along with the crabs and occasional eel that makes their way to the parlor.

Dr. Jelle Atema from the Boston Marine Biology Laboratory describes the mating of lobsters as “poignant” and involving a gentleness that is “almost human.”

When the hen is ready to mate, she seeks out the male of her choice in his lair, Dr. Atema explains.  There she molts, shedding her shell to expose “her naked vulnerability.” (Atema’s words, certainly not mine.)

At that point the male could either mate with her or just eat her, but he chooses the former, turning the hen’s vulnerable body over unto her back. The male lobster, all dominance in hard shell, pointy legs and mouthparts, inserts his first pair of swimmerets, which are rigid and grooved, and passes his sperm into the female’s soft body. Dr. Atema observes that the female lobster will remain in the safety of the male’s den for about a week until her new shell hardens.

No matter what you’ve seen on television, lobsters do not mate for life.

To ensure not being pinched by the lobster en route from trap to sorting table (or again, if you’re lucky, traveling trap to boiling pot) the lobster must be held by its carapace, the long solid shell between head and wickedly articulated tail. Being smacked by the under side of their flipping tail hurts almost a much as being pinched. It doesn’t take long to pitch one in the pot, though and lobster eaten on the boat where it was caught has no match in any restaurant.

Traps are marked with buoys identified by the lobsterman’s license number. Occasionally whales get caught up in the lines between traps and buoys, other times the lines are cut, by storm or mishap or rival, leaving the “ghost trap” on the floor of the sea to go on catching lobsters forever and ever, amen.

Giving lobsters a sense of security. Tender mating rituals and ten months to produce the youngsters (crickets!). Kitchens and coffee cups! No wonder we have such mixed feelings about consigning them to their deaths in a vat of roiling seawater and steam.

Even Alice in Wonderland is loathe to admit that every lobster she’s ever known is one she’s eaten, choosing her words very carefully as the Mock Turtle teaches her the Lobster Quadrille.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?

Some “animal rights” radicals have repeatedly brought up the issues of cruelty (though really how seriously can you take an organization that calls fish “sea kittens”) and various theories have been floated in response to make cooking lobster more “humane.” Some suggest a gentle steaming.  Others suggest putting the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes to lull it into sleepy complacency. The truth of the matter is those are worse.

Lobsters die immediately upon contact with boiling water. Any residual twitching is a nervous response, not unlike (but less sophisticated than) the chicken running around after her head’s been cut off.  As for lobsters “screaming” in the pot, they have no vocal cords and thus no way to scream. The sound is made by air escaping the carapace.

Still, though, we don’t generally handle our food while it’s still alive. (Okay, oysters, in fact are still “alive” while traveling down my throat, but it’s really a stretch to anthropomorphize an oyster.) People try hard to disassociate the living lobster from the lobster recipe, even going as far to refer to them as “bugs,” and insects and lobsters are both arthropods. Yet whole threads exist on websites like Chowhound musing the question of how to kill a lobster.

Some recipes call for raw lobster meat—and it’s true that if you use “boiled” lobster meat in puff pastry, bisque, omelets and the like that the meat will be tougher. I’ll just have to live with that, because I am not willing to take up a cleaver to butcher a living creature even if said creature is just a step or two above earthworm on the evolutionary scale.  I’d rather have someone else dump it in a vat of boiling water and go on in my ignorant bliss.

The last time I’d had a lobster was October 2007 at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know, I know. Lobsters start to die little by little as soon as they’re taken from the sea. Their life in a tank is a kind of purgatory. Occasionally a particularly large or charismatic lobster will be “rescued” by a customer to be returned to the ocean. They rarely survive the trip back.

Of course, the Red Lobster restaurant charged “market price” which would have paid for two other entrees, and they brought out the melted butter and the bib. But they forgot to crack the tail with a kitchen knife and they couldn’t find the crackers. I asked the waiter to take it back to open the shell. When he brought it back, it seemed they’d taken a hammer to it. We didn’t end up paying for it finally, but even so, the lobster was so rubbery it was hardly edible. We had to go by a burger stand on the way back to the hotel, which is what we should have done in the first place.

Lobsters used to be so plentiful on the New England coast that after a storm, they’d pick them up on the beach and distribute them as food for widows and orphans. They made a regular appearance on the tin plates of prison inmates. Some employment agreements stipulated that the employee would not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Then, around the middle of the 19th century, someone figured out how to successfully transport lobsters to urban centers around the country and fresh lobster became a luxury food. Which brings me back to the remaining three pounds of fresh lobster (at $6.50 a pound) in my kitchen in Dayton, Ohio.

I can hear the shower go off upstairs. Carrying a cooked lobster in one hand, I tiptoe up the stairs, and standing to one side, use the lobster’s claw to scratch on the door to the bathroom.

Scratch scratch scratch.

“What is it?” my teenage son asks from within.

Scratch, scratch, scratch.

“Who’s there?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

“Yes?! What IS it?”

Scratch scratch scratch.

The door flies open and I wave the lobster at him.

“Argh! Mom! You killed it didn’t you?!”  I’m laughing so hard I can hardly catch my breath.

“No, no—ha, ha, ha” I rattle the lobster gently. “They killed it for me.”  He rolls his eyes and shuts the door.

In the kitchen, I whack the length of the tail with a chef’s knife. There’s so much tomalley I’m worried that something’s awry. I know some people love the dark green goop, that which serves as liver and intestines for the lobster, but it’s not my thing. Plus, with the rise of toxins in the ocean, I’m not keen on ingesting the lobster’s filtering system. I rinse the tail meat in the sink.

The claws have a kind of milky white jelly in them, that’s the cooked “blood” of the lobster. It’s not dangerous, but has little taste and I rinse that off too.

The last lobster is also overly full of tomalley. I wonder how many calls the upscale grocery has received from people concerned that their lobster was bad. I’ve never seen tomalley in this kind of quantity, but maybe that’s the norm now.

While I’m pulling apart one of the claws, the lobster draws blood as the sharp edge of the pincer slices my thumb.

“Dammit!” I drop the claw in the sink and raise my thumb against my mouth. “Ouch.” I have to go wash my hands and find the band-aids before I can return to making the lobster salad.

Lobster salad is for lobster rolls, my idea of culinary heaven and my last attempt to persuade my husband and son into the league of lobster lovers. It’s the meat of two lobsters, a teaspoon of green onion, a stalk of celery chopped fine, the squeeze of half a lime, a teaspoon of hot sauce and a tablespoon or two of mayo—just enough to bind it together.

This is the kind of lobster I dream about eating. If I were on death row, this is the meal I would ask for. Lovingly I spoon the mixture into the grilled-in-butter hot dog rolls. My husband eats one, but there’s not much enthusiasm. Julian seems to be finishing his, so I offer him another.

“Uh, no thanks, Mom. I’ve had enough.”  When I pick up his plate, I see that he has eaten the lobster roll, but around the lobster, picking out the chunks of meat, which litter his plate.

I give up. I am resigned that lobster will join that pantheon of other things I love but They Will Not Eat. Banana pudding, coconut cream pie, crème brulee, watermelon, summer soups, tomatoes, salad caprese, steak tartare, sushi, clam chowder, mussels in saffron cream sauce, oyster stew and now, lobster.

Long, long ago in Boston, I regularly drove north to Revere Beach for lobster rolls at Kelly’s Roast Beef.  A seaside joint, it’s open nearly every hour of the day (with a two-hour break from three a.m. to five a.m.) every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. No matter the weather or the season, you walk up to the window and order your lobster roll (some people do get roast beef I guess) and bite down into absolute bliss.

We usually went at night. I don’t remember all the people that went with me to Kelly’s. My ex-husband, I’m sure. I know my mother went at least once because she still talks about it. Girls in summer frocks and combat boots, skinny boys with new tattoos, friends home from Paris and people I could hardly stand; all of us at the window bathed in a pale blue fluorescent glow—the sea stretching out behind us inky black.

I don’t remember all of them because when I think about going to Kelly’s Roast Beef I think about all the times I went there with Joe.  He and I worked together and every day was punctuated with theater, gossip and lunch.  We adored each other, but you know, not like that. Or maybe it was like that. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance? I could count on Joe to hold my hand, to hold my head up, to keep me from drowning in self-pity and self-loathing.

He loaned me his leather motorcycle jacket when I needed to wear a leather motorcycle jacket. (And not just any leather jacket, either, but a Schott, like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One.)  There’s a photo of me somewhere in that jacket, looking just as brave as I needed to look.

Not that there wasn’t trouble in paradise. The worst fight we ever had was over a shower curtain, and it was bad. We didn’t speak for weeks.  And when we did speak again, we got in my Volkswagen and drove to Revere Beach for lobster rolls.

Lobster rolls consumed in companionable silence in the Victorian pavilion across the street, the waves whispering along the shore. We hear the lullaby of the sea, as we go lightly across the sand. We were so beautiful then, and too distracted to even know it. Joe went to New York to be a playwright; I went to the land without lobster.

I haven’t been to Kelly’s in nearly twenty years.

It isn’t the same, quite, eating lobster rolls in the kitchen of my house in Dayton, Ohio, on a summer night, thumb bloodied and bandaged.  With my eyes tightly closed I taste the lobster roll: buttery crispy hot dog bun, cool, tangy dressing, lobster sweet and resilient, redolent in my mouth.  And there it is, the spell of the lobster’s song: I taste and just for an instant, I am again at the edge of the sea.  Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?


Writer’s Block

May 18, 2009 § 5 Comments

I haven’t written anything in weeks. For awhile there, the writing was a daily ritual, and missing a day left me feeling like I’d done something dreadful: forgotten the baby in the shopping cart, or neglected to feed the dog, or change my undies. It was as regular as breathing.

Then I missed a day. Or two. Or three. Nothing awful happened. Occasionally kind people rang up and said, “Where are your stories?” It was nice to know they cared. I wrote some more. Then I went on a trip most of the way across the country. I packed the laptop, thought I’d carve out time for myself to scratch out a few thousand words each day. Who was I kidding? I wrote not a thing.

One of the worst fights I ever had with my father was ostensibly about writer’s block. We were sitting in a wonderful restaurant (now gone) in Livingston, Montana. It was the former Bucket of Blood Saloon that had been carefully and lovingly made over into an establishment of the highest order by the esteemed writer and painter Russell Chatham.

It was my favorite restaurant ever, anywhere. It was a folded linen napkin sort of place, but not stuffy. This piece is not about the restaurant, though. I am wandering. My father, an English professor, was in town for a visit, and we’d gone to the Bar and Grille and had a wonderful dinner: carpaccio, salad caprese, roast duck and a really good Cabernet, or two. 

He is telling us that he thinks my 6-year-old son should take lessons in the martial arts. My husband and I look at each other and smile a bit. This is a topic we’ve discussed.

“Well,” say I, “we’ve talked about it but we think it would just give Julian an excuse to kick people.”  My father, out of the blue, quietly explodes in front of us.

“Well, it would give him some self-discipline,” he hisses. “Something you never had.”

It wouldn’t have surprised me more if he’d reached across the table and slapped me. In those days I wrote copiously for a local weekly, turning out all manner of stuff from investigative reports on murders to groundbreaking ceremonies for new bank branches, a survey of Thanksgiving traditions to the nitty gritty of the police blotter, with book reviews and a personal column thrown in for good measure.

“I write more than 5000 words a week for publication,” I tell my father, tears welling in my eyes. “That takes a little self-discipline.”

“I want some respect!” he roars back. And so I get up and walk out, trying to get out the door before I start sobbing.

It was my mother who unraveled the mystery for me. She understood that I was defending myself with my declaration of  weekly achievement. She also saw that my father, from whom she was long divorced, saw my statement as a dig. “He has a hard time finishing anything—articles, essays, the Berryman book,” she said. “He thought you were throwing that in his face.”

My father is gone now. We never really discussed what happened in the Livingston Bar and Grille that night, though I did address it once in an email in the last months of his life. I told him that I was just trying to defend myself and that there was no insult, subtle or otherwise, intended for him. He didn’t respond to that, perhaps he didn’t even remember the incident.

But when I was sorting through his office at the University, I saw why he had never finished the book on John Berryman. He began in 1970. Berryman leapt to his death from a Minneapolis bridge in January of 1972; it would have been an ideal time to publish a book about the poet. In Dad’s office there were two filing cabinet drawers filled with material about Berryman: poems analyzed down to their last syllable. I asked Dad, then speechless from laryngeal cancer, what to do with the files. “Pitch them,” he scribbled on a legal pad. I did pitch some of them, but I packed up just as many and carried them home.

They stand in their boxes, not just in homage, but also as a cautionary tale. I, too, fall so easily into the research trap.  The research is fun, the quest for the unknown, the thrill of discovery. I have my own 20-year-old book project in file folders. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing, but by then, you’re so deep into the research that you don’t even know where to start.

But that’s not exactly the kind of block I’ve had lately. You know how it is when you wake up in the morning after strenuous activity the day before and you don’t even really want to move, because you know its going to hurt? It’s more like that. That famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Jack Nicholson has typed the same sentence thousands of times onto reams of manuscript paper, that made my heart ache. Not because it was showing that he was losing his mind, or that he was about to become a murderous killer, but because I understood. It is the ultimate spinning of wheels: All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy.

It isn’t that I don’t have anything to write about. I have a list of stuff I want to write about, plan to write about. I interviewed a local figure here a few weeks ago—no, it’s at least a month. He’s running for City Council. He’s a fan of my work and I know he’s been wondering where the hell the piece is. But I couldn’t write it. Not in these last weeks, it would have read like it was written with a stubby crayon. I was like a literary drunk, couldn’t put one word in front of the other.

Opening lines come to me in dreams. And closing lines. But I never even open up the word processing application on the printer—the modern equivalent to rolling the paper under the platen of a typewriter. I’ve had no blank sheet to stare at, because I have simply looked away. I’ve played hours of Snood (one of Dad’s favorite pastimes too, as it happened) I list stuff on eBay and track it from hour to hour, minute to minute. I read the news from many different major papers from different corners of the globe. I participate in forums. I wander around the kitchen looking for something to nosh on and then I come back, sit down and log on to Facebook.

Today, a good friend of mine, a writer, a woman with three young daughters who gets up at five in the morning (so she has time to write) told me that she had signed up to Facebook just to keep up with me. I was so ashamed. I know she didn’t mean for me to feel ashamed, but I did. I felt like a fraud. Writer! Feh! Who am I kidding? I am a dabbler, a dilettante, a pretender.

And yet….

When the words come they are like cool water on a tear stained face. The pages fill with word after word that not only march along together in formation, sometimes they dance like Alvin Ailey across the page. Sometimes they lift off like herons rising from the wood. And sometimes they plod along like little tired children, but at least they move. Those are the good hours. Those are the times that I feel light, energetic, even, dare I say it, immortal. This is not to say that the writing is easy. It isn’t. Sometimes you have to wrangle sentences as unruly as broncs and just as dangerous. Sometimes more dangerous. It’s nearly impossible to stop until I’m finished and sometimes the sun has gone down and come up again before the last bit of punctuation hits the page. It’s a weird combination of exhilaration and exhaustion to finish. My poor husband: I’ve woken him up many nights to have him talk me down so that I can sleep.

I don’t think it’s like this for everyone.

It isn’t like this for me every time. The more pedantic pieces don’t consume me so much, but they don’t give so much in return either. Yes, its fun to write about weird McDonald’s commercials, but it’s kind of like eating McDonald’s food, it doesn’t really sustain me. On the other hand, I can no more write every essay from the core of my very being any more than I could survive while bleeding all over the pages, and honestly, who would want to read a steady diet of that?

There’s a funny story about William Faulkner, who before he became a literary lion worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood. He too suffered from Writer’s Block—spending too many interesting evenings at cocktail parties, screenings, the Brown Derby.  Finally, after a particularly frustrating day trying to write at the studio, he told Howard Hawks that he was having a hard time concentrating and that he was going to go home to write. Hawks said fine, and a few days later he checked in at the hotel to see how Faulkner was coming with the script. “Oh, Mr. Hawks,” the desk clerk said, “Mr. Faulkner checked out on Monday.” He had returned home- to Mississippi- to write.

Maybe that’s my problem. I don’t have a door on my study (a soon to be remedied situation) – and I am more productive late at night when the dogs and cats and child and husband have curled in their respective beds.  The television is silent. But on the other hand I am used to writing in a newspaper office with phones ringing and an offset press running in the next room. I have had private offices, solitude galore, where I did not write a lick.

My friend Rose (not a writer) says I should relax and let it flow and she’s more right than she knows. But it’s easier said than done. On the Internet (oh the wonderful, horrible, fantastic and terrible Internet, waster of time, master of research tools) there are all kinds of helpful people wanting to cure my writer’s block.

Drink coffee. Exercise. Dance. Listen to music. Eat healthy snacks. Yadda yadda yadda. We know all those things, don’t we? I’ve got my coffee cup. I’m listening to the Afro Cuban All Stars, music that can be incredibly conducive to writing, and yet. (Wait, you say, you’re writing this, aren’t you? And yes, but this isn’t really writing. This is like a pianist playing scales or a skater warming up, a painter cleaning brushes. This is the writing you do when you are getting ready to do some writing.) It’s a damn good thing I’m not Scheherazade… a thousand stories indeed, I’d have been dead a month ago.

I know what I have to do, and this is a start. I have to make deadlines for myself and I have to Honor Those Deadlines.  Oh, yes, and that other thing.







And make them dance.

Wherever green is worn

March 17, 2009 § 3 Comments

On Things Irish and the Celebration of St. Patrick

by Larkin Vonalt

So many things about the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America bother me, and I have not been good company, watching throngs of green-attired Americans from the sidewalks, going from bar to bar in Boston, or Butte or Chicago. My friends used to say, “Lighten up, have another beer.”

The very last night I spent publicly celebrating the wearing of the green culminated in watching drunken young men urinate off the awning of the M&M Restaurant onto the crowd below. That’s it, I thought, there must be a way to mark St. Patrick’s Day that does not involve green wigs, green beer or puking.

The year before last we did return to Butte to watch the beautiful daughters of Sullivan-Daley clan, dear friends all, dance the parade route. I wore a green ribbon in my hair, and my Chinese husband had on a small button that read “Irish, sorta.” They say that on St. Patrick’s Day that everyone is Irish, and for many Americans that is literally as well as figuratively true.

In this country, we celebrate a number of holidays that find their roots in our ancestral cultures: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Chinese New Year. But Hallmark doesn’t market cards for those occasions, and no city dyes her river, and Americans don’t make such perfect asses of themselves as they do for St. Patrick’s Day. It seems a strange way to pay homage to a complicated people with such a complicated history, who despite or because of the struggles have given us a legacy of literature and music quite apart from any other.

Unlike my friend who sends me excerpts from the Irish Times, and brings me Irish tea and Irish socks and Irish linen and writes an excellent online journal about the Irish diaspora in Montana ( http://montanagael.blogspot.com/ ) I know almost nothing about Ireland. You don’t have to know much to begin to understand how intensely tangled a thing it is to be Irish. Even when I was just 19, and passionately interested in the hunger strike and eventual death of IRA activist (and MP) Bobby Sands in the Long Kesh outside of Belfast, I couldn’t figure out if he was a villain or a hero. Nearly 30 years later, I am still no clearer in my understanding.

This ongoing struggle between Protestant and Catholic, Loyalists and Irish Republicans is found even in what the “wearing of the green” is supposed to stand for. Originally, the color associated with the Catholic Feast Day for St. Patrick was blue. “Wearing of the green” refers to the wearing of a shamrock on your clothing, to show your Irish nationalism or at times, to show your loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. (St. Patrick, who lived 385- 461 A.D., used the three-leafed Shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the pre-Christian Irish.)

Some Protestant Irish have taken to wearing Orange on St. Patrick’s Day as a sign of rebellion, drawing from William of Orange (the King of England) who defeated King James II, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of Boyne in Dublin in 1688, ensuring a Protestant (and English) military dominance in Ireland, and creating tension that has existed ever since. Yes, ever since. 320 years.

I don’t exactly know how it is that I never went to Ireland. I went other places that meant less. Italy, for instance. I could have skipped those months in Italy altogether for a few days on Wicklow Head and been the better for it. I wept on the grave of James Joyce, still in self-imposed exile in Zurich. It was only 600 miles more to Dublin. If James and Nora could manage it in the twenties, well surely, I could have made the effort. I didn’t.

Joyce wasn’t the only Irish writer that stirred my heart. Oscar Wilde had been a favorite since high school. How could you fail to find amusement and encouragement in quips like “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” or “Biography lends to death a new terror,” or “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

William Butler Yeats rounds out a trilogy for me. I named my thoroughbred mare “Pilgrim Soul” for a phrase in his poem “When You Are Old.” This is the stanza:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

Yeats’ most famous poem is without question “Easter 1916” about the week-long Irish uprising. His ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve home rule is clear in every line. And so too, is his utter grief at the outcome.

And so, I no longer really celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, so much as I mark it, acknowledge it, carry it in my heart, which if in reality is only a very very small part Irish, is wholly Eireannach for this one day. 

In the morning, I will arise and go now (not to Innisfree) but down the stairs, dressed quietly, a dark moss green merino sweater. Breakfast won’t be much, Barry’s tea with milk and sugar in my usual leaf green mug. (No doubt the boy will wear something very green so as not to be pinched at school.) In the kitchen, I’ll choose music with an ear to the day: The Pogues, The Waterboys, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, U2.

I interviewed U2 in 1981 when we were all just pups, and they were playing in bars and opening for bands like J. Geils. Bono predicted their phenomenal success, we wished it for them but did not believe it. It disappoints me now how they have squandered it, with missions that are only about Bono’s ego and every record a re-hash of the one before it. Never mind, who knows what any of us would do with that sort of success?

Lunch will be simple. Potato Soup with brown bread and a Guinness. Perhaps in the afternoon, there will be time to peruse the Irish Times or curl in a chair to revisit William Butler Y. Dinner is the more complicated Limerick Ham. You didn’t think Corned beef and cabbage did you? Corned beef is not even Irish, but Irish-American. Immigrants in New York, looking for a cheaper alternative to the traditional bacon or sausage, turned to Jewish butchers, who provided them with the pickled brisket we associate with the 17th day of March.

My husband had an interesting question about the fact that St. Patrick’s Day falls during Lent, when many Roman Catholics have given up eating meat. Apparently, there is a special dispensation from the Bishop to allow for eating meat on the Feast Day of St. Patrick, and this has worked pretty well except for the very rare occurrence when St. Patrick’s Day actually falls during Holy Week and they have less wiggle room.

Limerick Ham is usually a cured leg of pork, traditionally smoked over Juniper branches. Okay, so no juniper branches and a leg of pork is a bit much for the three of us, so we adapt and cook a small smoked ham, first by boiling in apple cider and then finishing in the oven, and served with an accompaniment of potatoes and cabbage, with burnt oranges to finish.

Burnt Oranges

4 Large oranges

5 ounces sweet white wine

1 tablespoon butter

half-cup sugar

10 ounces fresh-squeezed orange juice

2 tablespoons Irish Whiskey (warmed)

Carefully peel the oranges thinly. Then with a sharp knife remove as much of the pith and white skin as possible, keeping the oranges intact. Cut the thin peel into fine strips and cover with sweet white wine. Put the oranges into an ovenproof dish. Put a little butter on top of each one, pressing it down gently, then sprinkle each one with a teaspoon of sugar. Put into a 400F oven for 10 minutes or until the sugar caramelizes.

Meanwhile mix the orange juice with the sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat and let it get syrupy, without stirring. Add the orange peel and wine mixture and bring to the boil again, then cook rapidly to reduce and thicken slightly.

Take the oranges from the oven and if not fully browned, put under a moderate broiler for a few minutes. Pour the warmed whisky over them and set it alight, over heat. As the flames die down, add the orange syrup and let it simmer for about 2 minutes. Serve at once.

Perhaps a glass of Bushmill’s while clearing up, listening to the boy practicing the cello in the next room. Settling on the velvet sofa to watch a movie, maybe The Crying Game (exploring the themes of race, gender, sexuality and nationality against the backdrop of the Irish troubles) or Michael Collins, about the Easter 1916 uprising. Perhaps neither, perhaps simply to bed instead, taking the green ribbon from my hair, the words of Yeats running through me like a long deep river.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death after all?

For England may keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

I write it out in a verse –

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Walking Somehow from the Sun

March 10, 2009 § 10 Comments




a requiem

If I had awakened in Montana last Thursday, as I have for most Thursdays for the last two decades I know the feeling that would have washed over me as soon as my eyes fluttered open: disgust. More snow, in March, for God’s sake. Would the winter ever end? It wasn’t just a dusting, but a significant snowfall. The kind that makes people linger in bed, or if they brave the weather, they stamp their boots going into coffee shops, the windows wet with condensation, shaking the snow from their hair.

The news reached me within an hour of its occurrence. There had been an explosion on Bozeman’s historic Main Street. My husband, at our home in Ohio, called me at my mother’s to tell me. It was enough of an explosion to catch the attention of CNN. We didn’t live in Bozeman, but it had been the closest large town, and it was the place we went for shopping, special dinners, baby gifts, art galleries, ballet lessons.  We’d walked Main Street for the Christmas stroll, the Sweet Pea Festival, Crazy Days.

Elmer called me back when he found out where the explosion actually was. We knew the block well. It was thought that the explosion was centered around Boodles, an upscale restaurant. We’d eaten there a few times. The food had failed to live up to the hype or the price tag, but still the restaurant’s sudden and complete disappearance into a pile of broken debris saddened me. Some people must have enjoyed the restaurant, they’d been in business for at least a decade. The front of Boodles was painted a glorious green, somewhere between sea glass and geranium leaves. 

The color was shared by the bar next door; the Rocking R. It was enough of a cowboy bar to be packed during Rodeo week, but mostly the clientele ran to MSU students. When I first moved to Montana, a hundred years ago, I went there with my old friend Sheryl Dahl. Since then, I think we’d been in once or twice to get a sandwich, a Bobcat or a Ken’s Special at the Pickel Barrel counter inside.

There was a gallery of Western Art next door, and next to that, a charming and luxurious children’s shop, Lilly Lu’s, a place that would have fit in as well in SoHo as it did in this Rocky Mountain town. Maybe better in SoHo, actually. Upstairs from that, was a place where we’d spent a lot of time: the studios of Montana Ballet, where all three of our kids had taken lessons. Julian had stuck with it the longest, thumping out the rhythm of plies and grand jetes in both Ballet and Jazz classes. A little wave of nausea rippled over me as I thought of those polished floors and high windows, all those kids in their leotards and soft leather slippers. 

I learned later that the Ballet had moved, that the space I remembered was now an architect’s office. It had been early in Bozeman when the second block of East Main blew up. Just after 8 a.m. and officials thought the early hour and the new snowfall had kept injuries to a minimum.  Initially eleven were feared missing. One by one their whereabouts were identified until only a solitary soul remain unaccounted for and officials were tight-lipped with details.

The story trailed after me, like the scent of smoke in my clothes. I thought perhaps I’d write about it, how we felt connected to some of those places. I made a few notes, penciled the word “Ka-boom” in the margin.

In the comment sections of online newspaper editions, people – some long gone from the Montana scene- wrote of their sorrow. Others made snarky remarks about cowtowns and militia, revealing the ignorance of those who penned them.  There are other towns in America like Bozeman. Asheville, North Carolina. Boulder. Madison. It is a deep blue pocket in a mostly red state, a town full of young mothers with jogging strollers, bookstores, coffee houses, oriental rug galleries, wine bars. The women in Bozeman choose Dansko clogs over Manolo Blahniks. And so do the men. 

The Rocking R stirs memories for many. One writer hopes the bar’s sign, an iconic red enameled holdover from the “R’s” good old days (that is, before the remodel) can be saved. Someone else says no, it’s lying crumpled in the street. It isn’t though. Photographs of the scene show it hanging on the fragile façade that still stands. The Bozeman daily features the scene in their online photo section, Montana 360, [ http://bozemandailychronicle.com/montana360 ]providing a navigable view up and down the street. Windows are said to be boarded up as distant as city hall, four blocks away.

They say that the American Legion is badly damaged by fire. Next door, Artcraft Printers, where they printed Julian’s baby announcements; they are closed indefinitely. Starky’s, a deli where we used to stop in for Reubens and chicken soup has sustained heavy damage.  Then there’s the Great Rocky Mountain Toy Store on the other side of them. When you live somewhere that long, some things become as familiar as the back of your hand. The Governor, Brian Schweitzer, arrives in the snow. The owner of the rug gallery on the corner is inconsolable. He had just stepped out for coffee when the explosion occurred. The next day volunteers will help him carry out scores of wet and sooty carpets, most weighing more than a hundred pounds each.

Days go by. I check the news online. CNN has long since dropped the story, moving on to other catastrophes in other places. I am nagged by the mystery of the missing person. Officials are not forthcoming about anything in that regard. When I read that the missing person is a woman, I wonder who let that slip to the media and if they thought “Oh shit” when they realized what they did. 

The general consensus is that the explosion was caused by a leak in a 12 inch natural gas pipe. Northwestern Energy has been on the scene, shutting down gas lines. Owners of the businesses on that block are allowed to visit, escorted in silence. The woman from Lilly Lu’s reports that she stood sobbing, looking at where her shop, where the last ten years of her life, used to be. They allow her to carry away a brick of the historic storefront. It’s all that’s left.

It is a Riverdale, Utah paper that spells out what everyone fears. The Boodles chef, Scottie Burton is a Riverdale native. His girlfriend, Kate Ludwig works next door at the Montana Trails Gallery.  They are usually at work by eight o’clock in the morning, but with the snow, they’ve overslept.  Burton says they are quite certain that the Gallery manager was there, though. He wonders if perhaps she triggered the explosion by turning on the lights. Montana Trails. I’d been to a couple of receptions there, I’d admired pieces in the gallery window as I’d passed by on the sidewalk. Bears, horses, calves, bison, trout rendered with skill and sensitivity, not couch art. A collection of beautiful knives handmade by the charming son of a famous writer.  Bronzes, fluid with motion. No Conestoga wagon scenes.

The Dickinson, North Dakota newspaper is initially alone in reporting that “Search Turns Up No Victims”  in the Bozeman explosion, as if therefore, there are not any. A handful of other papers searching for news will also miss the unspoken, unwritten “yet.” No victims found yet. Seeing the strangely upbeat tilt of the story makes me impatient and agitated. Are they stupid? Well, maybe. Maybe they’re just hopeful. Maybe you have to be that way to stand  living in Dickinson, North Dakota. Maybe you have to hope against hope.

This morning, the news: a body has been found. Searchers found that one last person shortly after noon on Sunday. One of the British poet laureates, Philip Larkin, wrote a poem in 1969 after an explosion in a mine. He describes the miners walking to work, “Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke/ 
Shouldering off the freshened silence.”

He describes them with a certain tenderness, playfully chasing a rabbit, returning with a nest of lark’s eggs, which they admire and leave undisturbed in the grass, before they passed “ Fathers brothers nicknames laughter/ Through the tall gates standing open.” 

This afternoon, there is identification by dental records. It is an unnecessary and cruel detail, but every news story carries it, and I am guilty of it as well. The woman is Tara Reistad Bowman, the manager of the gallery. She was the wife of Chris Bowman, whose family owns Owenhouse Ace Hardware up the street– where we’ve bought string and canvas, horse buckets and Christmas lights, French rolling pins and cans of paint, extension cords and shop vacs, ice cream sandwiches. I don’t know Tara, but my heart breaks for the people who loved her. 

The photograph accompanying the news story shows a young woman with long pale hair, a face that is all angles and planes, strikingly beautiful, but not conventionally pretty. A family friend describes her as “the most genuine, positive person, the nucleus of her family.”  A couple of artists’ blogs note her death, heavy with sadness. Many photograph of the scene has shown  her vehicle parked behind the gallery. 

She is the youngest of four children, the only daughter. One of her brothers describes her as “gentle, but tough.”  In February 2004, Tara’s father was murdered by a disturbed man, the paranoid-schizophrenic son of his lady friend. The man had forced his mother to write him a $10,000 check before killing first her and then Chester Reistad. It was a brutal crime, and one that captured the attention of the Bozeman community.  It was Tara’s strength, her brothers say, that supported the family during that terrible time. Tara is quoted in a newspaper story as saying that the defendant “killed the only two people who would have been willing to go to bat for him.” 

I am reminded of a comment written before her body was discovered. Someone who knew her wrote that the only comfort to be found was in “knowing that she is safe in the arms of both her fathers.”

“The dead go on before us,” wrote Philip Larkin “they/ 
Are sitting in God’s house in comfort 
/ We shall see them face to face– 

/plain as lettering in the chapels. 

The morning of the explosion Tara Bowman had been exchanging emails with her mother, Skip, planning together an upcoming party. Her mother said to a local television station that her “daughter’s beauty was just a mirror of what was inside.”  It is exactly what a bereaved mother might say upon losing a beloved child, which makes it no less true. Still, she gives us perhaps a more telling glimpse of Tara when she describes her as a “prankster who liked to laugh.”

It was said and for a second

Wives saw men of the explosion

Larger than in life they managed–

Gold as on a coin, or walking

Somehow from the sun towards them.

That morning, Tara was on the telephone with one of her best friends. The friend recounted to a local television station that they were talking about an upcoming trip to Hawaii, Tara was laughing. At 8:14 the line went dead.  Ash and snow falling from the sky.

Today,  Monday, the day after they pulled her from the bricks and rubble, she would have been 37 years old. It was her birthday.







The Crooksville Bowl

March 8, 2009 § 11 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

The bowl was sitting in a shop window along the narrow Main Street of Newberry, South Carolina. Newberry is an old town, its cotton mills long gone. But it does have a leg up on economic recovery with the restoration of the Opera House into a first class performance hall, and its streets lined now with interesting restaurants and antique shops that range from excellent to laughable. 

The window in which the bowl sits no longer belongs to a functioning shop. It has a colorful display of mismatched goods and a couple of handwritten signs, “For Rent,” and something I can’t decipher from the intersection. The bowl is quite large, a foot across the top rim; cream colored, with a reddish band. Maybe McCoy, I think from the car. It’s handsome. The light changes, I put the car in gear and not another thought is given to the bowl in the shop window.

As it happens, I find myself stopped at that particular stop light nearly everyday. I have come back to Newberry to help my mother who is scheduled for major surgery. In the first days of her recuperation, alone in my car, I find myself looking for the bowl when I arrive at that crossroads, and it is somehow reassuring that it is always there. When Mother is well enough and we are on our way somewhere, I point it out to her as we pass by. Her glance does not locate it among the hodge podge of goods, so I ‘round the block and slow down for her to see it. It’s not really to her taste. 

By now I’ve deciphered that one sign directs inquiries about items in the window to the oddly named Pink Verandah, a shop two doors up that has no verandah and is not pink. I have still not actually walked up to the window to give the bowl a closer look. It could have a giant chip in the rim not visible from the roadway, or a significant closed crack; both of those would be deal breakers. I mention the bowl a few times to my mother, thinking perhaps she’ll take the hint that this might be a good birthday present to mark the otherwise unacknowledged day that passed by a few weeks before. She does not.

Then it’s time to go home to my husband and son in Ohio, I decide if I am that undecided about the bowl, then clearly I don’t need it. So I go away, and come back a week later to resume care for my rapidly recovering Mom. I am pleased to see the bowl is still sitting in the window. One day after lunch at one of the better restaurants in town, we walk across the courthouse square to take a closer look at the bowl. There are no visible chips or cracks, but the litmus test is to ring the rim. If it rings with a thud, there is a crack and the structure is significantly compromised. Ringing true is the hallmark of a piece that is still very much intact.

The tag is visible from the sidewalk outside. It reads “Crooksville Bak-In Pantry Ware” and “$45.”  From the turn of the century through the forties bowls were produced (often made of yellow clay and referred to as “Yellow ware”) for use like a casserole dish in woodfired ovens, baking puddings and pot pies. They were quite popular and are still sought after by collectors. Though the bowl in the window is the right color for Yellow ware, which can range from the color of egg custard to that of Dijon mustard, the clay isn’t the right consistency, as the Ohio river clay used for Yellow ware was pretty coarse and resulted in a thick earthenware vessel. 

We walked to the store down the street to inquire. Our timing is less than perfect, though, as the store is inundated with a gaggle of women demanding the attention of the shopkeeper, their observations and limited knowledge ringing out like a chorus of chain saws. I think maybe I’ll just go see what I can find out about Crooksville on my own.

It isn’t too encouraging. There was lots of ugly stuff made by Crooksville, and most of it is being offered for less than ten dollars. There are some other examples of  Bak-In Pantry Ware, but their resemblance to “my” bowl does not extend beyond the mark. It’s very curious. I dig deeper. 

Crooksville, Ohio, is about sixty miles southwest of Columbus. It is a tiny town of less than two thousand, and the area has been home to many famous potteries. Hull pottery was located in Crooksville, six miles north is Roseville, another tiny town, home to both Roseville pottery and McCoy. Eleven miles further along is the larger town of Zanesville, which was home to Weller. 

Historians have established that in 1851, there were 41 potteries within three miles of Crooksville. These were called “Bluebird” potteries, and were established to provide farmers with containers and tableware. They were often set up in sheds with a couple of kick wheels, and a brick kiln outside. They were called “Bluebird” potteries because the potters relied on the return of the bluebirds from the south as a signal that it was the proper time to mine the clay. 

The Crooksville Pottery was established in 1902, but by 1959, they had shuttered their doors. They had outlasted Weller (1948), Hull (1952) and Roseville (1954.) McCoy managed to continue through to 1967, when they were bought by another firm; production ceased altogether for them in 1990.

Crooksville (named after a postmaster, not a tendency for larcenous behavior) still is a pottery center, holding a festival (complete with Queen and Cute Baby contests) every year, and providing a home for Pottery Museums and other organizations interested in American pottery.  While all this was fascinating, I could still find nothing that looked like the bowl in the window.

In fact I was having a hard time finding reference to any earlier pieces at all. What I was seeing on line (and it is not pretty) was serving and table ware produced in the 1950s: little Dutch girls in tulips, elaborate decals of roses, rust and gold florals.  I combed through several hundred patterns at Replacements.com, an excellent online resource for china patterns. Nothing. I still hadn’t seen the mark on the base of the bowl, perhaps there was some mistake. 

In the meantime, my mother was much improved, and quite ready to live independently. I’d been gone nearly a month and my family was getting fractious. So I made plans to go home, and started packing. On my last day in Newberry, we went to lunch downtown with my mother’s two sisters and one of her brothers, and as one is wont to do in such situations, we ate too much. 

“The bowl,” I thought. While the others still sat around the long table, my aunt Carol and I took a stroll up the street, pausing outside the restaurant to admire Calamity, a bulldog out with her owner. The Pink Verandah is empty of customers when we arrive, but it turns out Calamity and her owners are on our heels. There is a sweet teenaged boy behind the counter. When I ask about the bowl in the window of the shop two doors up the street, he says “I’ll have to call my Mom.” As he does so, the woman with Calamity says “Are you calling your mother? Ask her what the name of the lamp shop is and where is it?” As the boy talks, she interrupts several times. “Don’t forget about the lamp shop.”

In the meantime, we browse. There is a tin that used to hold Balkan-Sobranies cigarettes. I smoked them occasionally in college. $4. I wish I’d kept the tins. There is a plywood cabinet, painted white, presented as a folk piece. $550. Carol and I laugh. There is an awful lot of negrobilia (mammy dolls and the like) that makes me intensely uncomfortable. You see quite a bit of that in antique shops in the south. It’s funny, they’d never dream of selling the disrespectful caricatures that the Nazis produced of the Jews. Or maybe they would. There are some nice paintings, but I really just want to see the bowl.  

Finally, the father of the boy tending the store arrives. He has unlocked the other shop, and Carol and I walk up there, with the boy who climbs into the window to get the bowl. 

“Don’t drop it,” I pray silently. There, on the sidewalk, I examine it. On the bottom, there’s the mark, in orange. “Bak-In Pantry Ware by Crooksville.” There’s no pattern number, so it was one of the earlier pieces. Somewhere around 1920-1930. I could tell that anyway, by the arts and craft style border below the rim, brick red with a floral motif, maybe poppies, or pansies. An open faced and friendly flower. I flick the edge of the bowl with a finger tip. It rings true. 

My mother is surprised that I didn’t try to get a “better price” on the bowl, but really, I just didn’t have the energy. My uncle Allen examines it and proclaims that it is not old, because it has no chips, cracks or crazing. In fact, crazing (fine lines in a pottery glaze) is caused by fluctuations in temperature, extreme hot (like in the oven) or extreme cold, (like in a freezer.) It isn’t necessarily an indication of age, as improperly glazed contemporary items can become crazed.  

This bowl was probably never “baked in.”  There are some very light marks inside the bowl, where a South Carolina mother stirred up brownies or macaroni salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits. Maybe she set it on the table laden with green beans or collards.

Who knows how it got here to Newberry, South Carolina. If it sat on a shelf in the old Rose’s store, or one of the other housewares shops that used to dot Main Street. Maybe it was purchased in a general store in Pomaria or Little Mountain or Whitmire. No matter, today, it’s going home to Ohio.

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