The Authenticity Experiment, the marmalade edition. My mother loved orange marmalade on buttered toast. She started eating it sometime in her thirties, I’m going to guess during her pregnancy of my youngest sister, Jule. Because I wasn’t in school yet, I remember what she craved when she carried Sue—toast with raspberry jam and butter. I recall sitting at this little table in our carpeted breakfast room in the yellow, rented house just 100 yards from Lake Minnetonka, and eating toast with jam with her. I can’t quite see her in the tiny chair next to me. I imagine she stood at the end of the kitchen counter and ate her toast and drank Folgers coffee from the aluminum stovetop percolator, while a cigarette burned down in an ashtray near her right hand.
This was the late 60s and she’d asked her doctor about quitting smoking while pregnant and he told her she’d have a low birth weight baby if she stopped her Kool Menthol cigarettes. (Sue weighed more than 8 pounds and, my mother, friends with her obstetrician, always told us that upon the delivery and weighing of Sue, she said to him, Low birth weight baby, ha! Thank God, I didn’t smoke more.)
Imagine my mom now in Rochester, Minnesota, in another yellow house, the first one my parents owned—720 NW 26th Street—unexpectedly pregnant, with a toddler at home and a baby butch in first grade. See her alone in that tiny kitchen with the white and gold Formica countertops—Sue napping, me in school—and watch her making toast, smothering it in margarine (the 70s, you know), and then marmalade. She’s still drinking coffee, cigarette still burning away in an ashtray, but eating toast with a different kind of jam.
When I was younger, I didn’t like the bitterness of marmalade, the surprise of orange zest shocking my taste buds that had just found the sweetness of the jam. I’d ask my mom why she liked marmalade and she’d always give me the same answer: Oh, honey, she’d say, some day when you’re in your thirties and you’re having a very bad day, you’ll have a piece of toast with orange marmalade on it, and drink a cup of coffee or tea, and you’ll feel like everything is going to be okay. I’d always laugh and say I didn’t think this would happen. She’d say, Just you wait. I’d ask her how she felt so certain and she’d say Because my mother told me the same thing. Then we’d both laugh.
I’ve been thinking so much about the stories my mom told and her specific turns of phrase because, for the past year, on my office floor, sat a stack of brown expanding file folders, three oversized manila envelopes stuffed to capacity, and one big jewelry box-sized container of photos and news clippings. My sisters and I didn’t have time to go through these last summer when we cleaned out the last of my mom’s possessions from the storage locker where we’d stashed them the week after she’d died. We agreed we would keep the locker for two years and then figure out how to disperse the antiques, the household goods, and the plain old crap. These final remains in my office had fuchsia post-its on them, labeled “Go thru” in Sue’s handwriting.
We labeled lots of boxes “Go thru,” brought them back to my house, and then sat in my living room combing them over. There were 13 or 17 bibles belonging to relatives and dating back to 1862 (a pocket bible, in fact, carried by my great-great grandfather during the Civil War), slides of my uncle and his family, my grandmother’s notebook tracking all the details for my mom’s wedding—including the price of the cake ($32, in case you’re wondering, for a three-tiered white cake with buttercream frosting)—and a key to a safe deposit box of a long-ago-merged bank in Minneapolis. That was the contents of just one box. We had at least ten.
None of us have kids. Even if we did, I’m not sure we’d yoke them to our family’s physical history that way. What do you do with all that stuff? Some of it we burned in a ceremony, a little of it we saved, and most we recycled. Except for this last bit in my office at which I’d yet to look.
I started going through it. I found letters my great-great grandfather sent to his parents during the Civil War and letters one of my great-great grandmothers sent to her mother and sister after moving “out west” from Maine to Wisconsin. And I found three Christmas cards—all three cards the same—written to my mother from her mother, in 1980, 1981, and 1982, each year, the handwriting deteriorating a little more into illegibility.
The thing about these cards is they broke my fucking heart, just broke it. In each of them my grandmother is almost pleading with my mom to understand in her bones the gratitude my grandmother feels for all the physical, emotional, and financial help my mother provided. Oh, honey, one of them says, you are so good to me and good for me, and I love so dearly. I couldn’t get through all this without you.
My mother said this exact thing exactly the same way to me, over and over and over again (substituting only “much” for “dearly.”) Along with, Oh, honey, do you know how much I love you? I hope you do so you’ll remember after I’m gone. And in these letters, I could see where she’d learned this behavior, my mother, and I felt somewhat distressed that I didn’t have letters like these, and somewhat grateful, too because they are difficult to read, by which I mean painful, the worry, and panic, and shame of my grandmother almost palpable. Also, they scared me because Alzheimer’s has never skipped a generation in my family. My grandmother wasn’t demented that I know of, but when I saw that she’d sent the same Christmas card three years in a row, and on her final year signed the card “Jean” instead of the usual “Mother,” I wanted to drop the cards and run 100 miles in the other direction.
This morning, like most, I sat in the bathtub reading, texting, and sending emails. I finished an email to one of my mom’s oldest friends about what I’d found, and then I started sobbing. This is, as my Wisest Mentor likes to say, embodied grief—a deeper level of grief than I knew to be possible. For some reason, I thought of the North Dakota Music Teacher whom I often text from the bath. She is always surprised I am in the tub, because she herself dislikes baths and I always reply the exact same way: Because Pisces. Because free hot water.
Today, though, I wrote her an essay-length text about learning to love marmalade. Because my mother was correct. I do love orange marmalade now, but it didn’t happen until I turned 40 and my mother spent seven weeks in the ICU, hovering between worlds. It was then I learned the mysteries of the bittersweet jam. Most afternoons during those seven weeks, I sat in the cafeteria of the hospital and ate a half a piece of orange cake made with a thin layer of orange marmalade just underneath the buttercream frosting, and I drank an Americano. Eating that way certainly didn’t make everything okay, but for a moment, I felt some relief (food as comfort is a different post entirely).
I wrote all this to the North Dakota Music Teacher who is 12 years younger than I am—whose parents remain hearty and hale, and still working; whose parents, in that way of good Midwest people, send me notes and little gifts every now and again; whose parents are not my own and do not feel that way, either, which makes me miss my own flawed parents even more. After telling her the marmalade story, I wrote, Sometime when you are in your 50s and, god forbid, your parents die, I think your Aries self will know the comfort of sitting in the bath and reading, and texting, and emailing, and crying.
She is often a muse, the North Dakota Music Teacher, by which I mean a person who spurs me to write or to whom I aim my piece. I always have an audience in mind when I write, so that I might focus my craft. Today, was no different and I told her as much.
She replied back hours later, time zones, weekend tasks, and all that. Please, please, please, please, I want to read that AE. And so it is: the letters and the photos, the stories and the phrasings, the bitter and the sweet, and the slowly cooling water.