Post #83 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett
Women’s Memoirs is pleased to present the first in a three-way tie for First Place in our April memoir contest – APRIL MEMORIES category. Be sure to check back all day as we continue to publish these award-winning memoir stories.
Martin swung open the kitchen door and strode through his kingdom. Adjusting his chef’s hat, he gave the hi-sign to the preps and cooks. His apron strings were pulled taut around slender hips. His sparkling kitchen white pants and T-shirt were fresh from the dryer. He was a man in his element, with the will and confidence to accomplish the day’s tasks and the crew surrounding him to support and follow through with the plan. Martin, tall, dark and handsome with smooth, black skin and straight black hair, was born and raised in Trinidad, West Indies. He spoke with a Jamaican/British accent, or that’s how it seemed to North Americans. When he gave the command to “Pahn up the po-tah-tohs!” two vegetable preps hopped to it.
Probably, this was the only industrial, vegetarian kitchen in the state of Iowa. Located on the campus of a meditation academy, we fed a fluctuating population of between five hundred to one thousand meditation course participants weekly. We made our own yogurt, grew sprouts, pressed tofu, baked granola, bread and desserts, not to mention the rotating menus for Indian, Mexican, Italian and Chinese Nights. There was a different homemade soup everyday at lunch. I can vouch for that because in 1978, I was a lunch cook in Martin’s vegetable kingdom.
I loved nothing more than perfecting my twenty-five gallons of split pea soup or corn chowder, “bucketing it up” to be sent to satellite kitchens, and then collecting my reward at the bottom of the urn where the thickest, richest, most savory portion remained. Every day at noon, you could find me scraping and slurping with a hunk of Anne’s freshly made bread and a slab of fresh butter from a neighboring farm, collecting my reward for getting lunch out on time.
We were a crew of seven, with rotating helpers arriving every day. The helpers were people in between meditation courses or just back from Switzerland or somewhere in Europe, having become teachers of meditation. Often they were more of a hindrance than help as their “cosmic prospective” was noticeably out of sync with the daily rhythms of our kitchen life. Conversations about whether a zucchini has consciousness never helped prepare fifty pounds of zucchinis for steaming. Of course, as far as kitchen crews go, we were a pretty cosmic bunch ourselves. We lived a cloistered life, meditating at least two hours a day, studying Vedic literature at night. The kitchen service we performed earned us credit towards more advanced meditation courses and possibly meditation teacher training. We all felt this to be the most encompassing understanding of life that one could gain. It would be borne out in our experience in meditation and in life. We felt that our collective meditation practice would positively influence the rest of the world.
We came from varying life situations, some with health problems, drug problems, some just seeking somewhere beyond ‘growing up,’ going to college and following parental expectations. Many had experienced dramatic positive changes as a result of their meditation practice that propelled them to come and live with other meditators. For some, it just provided a safe haven during a period of transition. Whatever it was that brought each of us together, a camaraderie developed that felt like a group marriage. Even the inevitable romances tended to be inbred within the staff. It was the friendships, however, that were the most profound. Hard work and youthful enthusiasm bound us together-an intentional, functional family.
I became closest to the people I worked with every day. In 95º Iowa summers, kitchen work could’ve been merciless. Not for us. Cleaning made it all worthwhile, since water fights ran rampant. There’s nothing like watching a face go from utter shock to sheer delight when the nap of the neck is blasted with ice-cold water. In January, we froze together delivering food on foot across fields of snow piled high, rendering our vans impotent. Every single day a new creation; whether from a new recipe or a familiar one, using the best ingredients, (often homegrown,) tasting as we went along, knowing what we were after, and improving or just maintaining the high standard of what we had created before.
Chef Martin Samrai had a West Indian curry powder and secret knowledge bestowed upon him by his mother crowning him a master with his oar, as he slumped over our thirty-gallon wok. We each developed our own specialties. The course participants, or “C.P.s” as we called them, came to expect the diversity of flavors, textures and colors that we continually produced. There were rumors of people hoarding certain dishes in their rooms, eating them sparingly until the next time that dish was served. This was especially true for desserts.
Desserts and breads were made by Anne, a California gal whose brother played professional baseball for the Phillies, my home team. If Martin was the Mogli at the center of our vegetable jungle, then Anne had to be Ballou the Bear’ In one self-contained, ample female body resided all the “bare necessities of life.” Her hugs were epic. She smelled of yeast and brown sugar. A hug from Anne was like being stuffed into the core of an immense cinnamon bun. Some never recovered, including her husband Pat whom she met working on staff. She may have been the sole reason many signed on to work. She was always singing. Her voice was early Doris Day. She covered mostly 1970s top forty while she kneaded or poured, although once in a while I got her to sing “Que Sera Sera.” Although embarrassed, she truly sounded like Doris.
My favorite dinner to cook was Mexican Night with Sofia. Sofia was three quarters Mexican, one quarter Puerto Rican. She was from Philadelphia, actually Huntingdon Valley, PA, a northern suburb where my cousin the doctor lived. Initially, I thought she was Jewish like me. Her family lived down the road from my other cousin’s deli. Sof’s mom, Olivia always sent local newspaper clippings to keep in touch. When a sex scandal erupted at my cousin’s deli, Sofia’s mother’s clippings became the messengers of my family disgrace. (Apparently, a different brand of cheesecake was being served on the second floor.) When Olivia came to visit, she brought authentic masa harina and a tortilla press. We made fresh tortillas instead of using the frozen ones. Usually Sof and I cooked with a large bag of chips between us, tasting the refried beans, the enchilada sauce, and the rojo as we added more freshly prepped cilantro and ginger root. We’d be dizzy from the aroma and extra cayenne we’d snuck in, but it was these deviations from the recipe that gave our food its extra kick. We loved reading the feedback from the CPs the next day. They’d say, “Celestial!” or “Heaven on Earth!” The server would comment, “The CPs are blissed out!”
We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I knew if I cooked dinner, I’d better be sure to clean the under lip of the urn for the next day when Maddie would roll it up to cook lunch. If it turned up dirty, Maddie would freak. She cooked with Felice who felt we should wash off the spoon every time we used it to taste. Maddie and Felice were kind of anal-retentive. They were both from New England. Sofia and I were definitely oral expulsive. But for the sake of our happy, cooking family, we left the place clean and used corn chips to taste, avoiding spoons entirely.
Martin oversaw all of this with bemused detachment. He called me “Tracy Kawff Mohn,” trying to affect my Philadelphia accent and my mother’s voice, which he heard every Sunday morning when she’d phone me at the kitchen. He never got it quite right. When Martin left staff before me, he gave me his copy of Catcher in the Rye. I guess I sounded more like Holden Caulfield than anyone else he knew. The rest of the staff called me ‘Tracele.’ Someone had gotten hold of one of Mom’s letters to me. They appreciated the Yiddish term of endearment, which I explained meant ‘my little love.’ In jest, I became Sri Tracele.
It was April, around Easter time, during my second year of service at the academy. My day began like most others with yoga, meditation, fresh-squeezed orange juice and a song in the bakery with Anne. On this day, Anne and I were lighting our pilots with an extremely bluesy rendition of ‘New York State of Mind.’ Martin caught us mid-rapture and shook his head. “Sounds like trouble…,” he mumbled and left the room. Within minutes, I left the bakery, psyched from our song, ready to cook lunch. I needed to pick up some ingredients from the preps. I entered the prepping room, which contained two double sinks with tables extending the length of the room from the drain boards.
Our usual crew of prep/cooks was there with an assortment of helpers. The conversation was revolving around Jesus Christ, of all topics. Those darned helpers were diverting us again. Not many zucchinis had been sliced. The discussion was in full tilt when I caught the tail end of “…and then the Jews killed Christ” coming out of the mouth of a newly minted meditation teacher who hailed from somewhere down south. I froze. I needed to listen more closely. “They’re not baptized. They’ll never be accepted into the kingdom of heaven. Christ killers won’t be saved…” I looked over towards what sounded like the voice of authority. It was Matt, a staff member who helped out in the kitchen when he wasn’t doing maintenance work. Matt was a Mormon from Phoenix with clear blue eyes and thick dark hair. He played guitar. He performed a fervid version of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s, “Teach Your Children” whenever we had staff parties. I thought he looked like a kitchen-fed James Taylor. My body was trembling. I felt like a stranger, all of a sudden, in these familiar surroundings.
“Matt, is this what you believe?” I confronted him.
“It’s the truth, Tracy,” he said solemnly.
He didn’t call me Tracele. The fire in his eyes brought tears to mine, but I held back.
At that instant I remembered a time as a child in my parents’ kitchen when my eldest brother told me that even though most of the people we knew were Jewish, not everyone was. In fact, we were a minority in the world. Some people didn’t like us. They blamed us for killing their God, Jesus Christ, who we didn’t believe in. He said it wasn’t true that the Jews killed Christ. He said, in fact, that Jesus was Jewish. He was the son of Mary and Joseph, Jewish parents. At the time I didn’t think much about it. The Christians I knew, classmates, teachers and my beloved baby sitter, didn’t seem to hold anything against me.
I looked at the surrounding faces in my Iowa kitchen. My friends all. It didn’t seem that they heard Matt the same way I did. They weren’t reacting. Apparently, they’d heard this before. I couldn’t leave or tune out as I usually would when the conversation about conscious zucchinis became heated. My mouth went dry but I had to know. I asked, “Maddie, is this what you were taught – that the Jews killed Christ?” She nodded. “Sof?” I whispered. Trying to avoid my gaze, she gave a quick nod. Heads of helpers were bobbing along the preps’ table as I looked into each person’s colorless eyes. Slowly I turned my head toward the Hobart mixer across the room where Anne had stopped singing. “A-nne?” Her name got caught in my throat. She looked at me incredulous, eyes wide and questioning, mouth unsmiling. She said, “Well, if they didn’t, who did?”
My blood and breath fought with each other to reach my throat, tightening around the acidic remains of morning orange juice. I felt an obligation to answer her question with the truth of the matter, although I really didn’t know what it was. I’d never had a reason to study this, or to defend what had suddenly become ‘my people.’ But I knew that what I was feeling from this crowd had more to do with history than truth. I thought of my grandmother, Bubbe Ida. I knew that she had escaped from a hard and freedom-less life in Czarist Russia. At my age, twenty-two, she crossed the world in ‘steerage’ with her five young children. I remembered hearing how she started “green” in this strange country, selling hot dogs from a pushcart she wheeled on to the street in South Philadelphia. I knew that the hardships of the life she left behind, the unimaginable doom she narrowly escaped in Europe, the perilous voyage she undertook with her children and many of her struggles as a foreigner in this country were provoked by sentiments similar to what I had heard today. Had I come so far on her dream to face this from my friends? Hoarsely, I tried to submit to Anne, “the Roman soldiers, Christ was a Jew.”
Now she froze. She looked at me, eyes squinting and then laughed out loud. She looked at me as if I was a poor misinformed soul whom she loved, but just couldn’t abide. Like, “I love you, I want to believe you, but that’s a bunch of crap and quit tampering with my religion.” Here in Iowa, we could believe that bodies can levitate if they meditate long enough, we could believe that we’d had a past life, maybe even in Atlantis, but Christ a Jew? That was outrageous! Blasphemous! I guess you have to draw the line somewhere.
My mind was running in circles. I needed to grab onto something. “Lunch!” I thought. “I’ll cook lunch.” I took refuge behind the soup urn. I turned on the steam and did something I was always careful to avoid. My forearm grazed the initial surge of steam and “Shit!” I yelled. “God dammit I burned myself!” No one heard me above the raging steam. I ran into the prep area, grabbed the hose above the sink and blasted my arm with cold water. Felice, not realizing what had happened grabbed the faucet back from me, with an indignation reserved for those who take without asking. She had been washing potatoes. Her coldness against my burning flesh was the perfect catalyst for what I needed to do most but couldn’t have done until that moment. I burst into tears, sobbing, “I’ve burned myself!” In seconds, Anne was rubbing my back and playing with my hair, while Felice ran for the aloe vera plant. She sat me down and rubbed in the salve, drying my face with a warm towel.
I relaxed, and let my mind drop in on Bubbe Ida. I was home from school for a Jewish holiday and my mother asked me to go see her to “give her some pleasure.” On these days, her house would be silent. There was no TV or radio playing. This was not allowed on a holy day. There was a smell of puffed cereal mixed with the morning air that I let in. Austerity resided here. Even the cookies were boring. They were ‘Stella Dora’, sugarless for diabetics. Her furnishings were simple, practical and revolved around serving others. So, when her house was empty of people, besides Bubbe and me, I noticed the air more, the stillness, and how her existence didn’t puncture it. Life’s distractions receded and the spirit seemed attainable. She had made a contract with God long ago that she would keep this day holy, in exchange for a long life and the happiness of her children. It worked for her. Her love for me filled the empty spaces of that apartment. The way she beamed when I walked in told me I was important. Few words had to pass. On these days, she didn’t extend herself for me. She didn’t try to be modern or even serve me anything. Still, I was being fed. I drank her in. I left her and said, “Good Yontif, Bub.”
I looked up at my kitchen family, trying so hard to comfort me. I wondered what part of the past we would bring to our dreams and what we would discard. I knew that we were all here with a vision of a better world, or at least the idea to better ourselves. I wondered about our future children and how far they would travel on our dreams. And I wondered just what we would teach them.
I went back to work and through the motions of my daily routine. I kept a restless silence, my heart at a distance from my friends. Later that week, Martin followed me into the walk-in refrigerator and cornered me.
“Something is wrong Tracy Kawff Mohn, what is wrong? You are not yourself.”
I looked into Martin’s liquid brown eyes, yellow spilling into the surrounding whites. I thought, “He might understand.” For the first time, I saw his muted pain, his disappointment, the disillusionment behind the polite indifference, the sad bemusement. I sensed a profound loneliness in his demeanor. But I said nothing.
“Nothing’s wrong, Martin. Nothing’s wrong,” is what I said.
Time and maturity have a way of revising endings. I wrote this story 15 years after the incident occurred. For 15 years, I thought about what I could’ve said, how I might have answered Anne’s question, how by revealing my feelings, I might have provoked a very different discussion in the kitchen that day. For 15 years, I read books on the subject of the Jews and the crucifixion. I remember attending a lecture entitled the ‘Rabbinical Response.’
But when I joined a writing group and put this story to paper along with so many other stories of my life, it became apparent that there was a greater lesson for me to learn than who killed Jesus. I needed to find my voice. I needed to learn to say, “Something’s wrong here. Something’s wrong,” when I felt upset or uncomfortable. I needed to stop saying, “Nothing’s wrong” and learn to say, “Let’s have a discussion. I want to feel understood by you, heard and embraced even when I’m saying something you may not want to hear. I need to be open and honest and see that when I am, things are still good between us.” I needed to stop avoiding confrontation.
It took me ten more years and a mix of therapy, journaling and sharing my stories, to understand where in my life this tendency to avoid confrontation came from. (Back to mother of course. Isn’t that where all of our issues originate?)
I finally shared this story with my dear friend Anne (the baker) and we had the honest and open discussion that I couldn’t have had at the age of 22. Writing memoir can be more than just a nostalgic romp through the past. Sharing the stories of our lives can provoke the kind of inner and outer change we would all like to see in ourselves and the world. It may take me a lifetime to become the honest, open and assertive person I’d like to be, but I’ll keep documenting and sharing the journey. It’s yet another practice paving my spiritual path.
COSMIC CORN CHOWDER
2 Tbs olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/4 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp basil
1/4 tsp paprika
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 cup minced celery or carrots
3 Tbs red bell pepper, minced
1 cup diced cooked potatoes (boiled or microwaved)
2 cups corn, fresh or frozen
3 Tbs flour
2 cup milk
1 cup vegetable stock or water
1. Warm the olive oil in large sauce pan. Add the seasonings over a warm flame. Do not have the heat on high or it will burn the spices.
2. Add the celery (or carrots) and bell pepper to mixture and cook for 5 minutes.
3. Whisk in the flour to make a roux.
4. Slowly whisk in 1/2 cup of the milk, add the rest of the milk, continuing to whisk until the mixture is thick.
5. Add the corn and cooked potatoes.
6. Add 1 cup vegetable broth, 1/2 cup at a time until the desired thickness.
7. Heat through but don’t boil. Continue to stir.
NOTE: When I fixed this meal, I didn’t use a stick blender for the chowder although it was a handy tool for making 25 gallons of guacamole. However, if you like, you can use a stick blender just enough to release the flavor of some of the corn. Do not blend until smooth. If you use fresh corn, you could consider grilling it before cutting off the kernels.
Except for my family members, I’ve changed the names of those mentioned in this story.