FOREWORD: I wrote recently here about traveling to the awards ceremony for the International Association of Culinary Professionals,\ with one of the first-time nominees. Our conversation made me recall a post I’d written immediately after I had won an award for one of my books, Passionate Vegetarian, back in 2003. It was a book which had also been nominated for and lost another award, in a month or so earlier.
Back then, I was in the first stages of caregiving my now-late mother, then very much alive.
I wrote this immediately after the win, knowing I’d forget details if I waited. (Take note, fellow writing apprentices.)
I believed then as I do now, that in life you do not get to order a la carte. You don’t ever only get wins. You get their opposites, too. You get the Whole Enchilada Combo Plate.
I probably believe this even more now then I did then.
I wrote this in May, 2003. My mother would live ten years longer, leaving this world on November 19, 2013.
At the time I wrote this, I had only the most general idea of the journey that lay ahead for the two us. But that is another story — many other stories.
This story I have left in present tense, as I wrote it.
THE DAY BEFORE
Here is what I was doing the day before my book, Passionate Vegetarian, won the James Beard Cookbook Award: moving furniture. Dust-busting. Toting vases, lamps, end tables, books, upstairs and downstairs.
This was in my mother’s house in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. My mother is 87. She broke her hip in January of this year, then re-fractured it in February during physical therapy (our family does not do things by halves).
Her care has been an ongoing part of my life this year. She is currently in a rehab center, but her deepest desire was and is to return to her own home and live as independently as possible.
She is currently angry most of the time.
Since January I have been working on her home, coming and going between Arkansas and New York, compressing the stuff of 50 years of her life in a three-story house to one story.
Stairs are out of the question for the foreseeable future. A live-in caregiver will need to reside upstairs. Her old living room has become a new bedroom (her bedroom used to be on the second floor), with a mini-office and desk corner (her office used to be on the third floor). Her old dining room has become a living room (the kitchen is now eat-in). The bathroom down the hall became a bathroom off the new bedroom.
My mother is convinced she will not ever need a wheelchair, yet I chose to have the door widened, and added hand grips for accessibility, good lighting, and a really cool bathtub — it has a hinged door so you can step into it, and Jacuzzi jets. I think, if she ever gets over being pissed at me for redoing her house, she will really like that tub.
We repainted. We replaced old windows. We moved stuff down to the basement, up to the attic, located, replaced, rearranged, cleaned, and breathed in sheet rock dust.
The day before the Beard Award was more or less the last hurrah of the three months of this intensive renovation. That day was done with a team of seven stalwarts.
There was my friend Deborah Krasner, who had come down from Vermont and who was also nominated for a Beard Award, for her book The Flavors of Olive Oil, that year. There was Fran Manushkin, a children’s book writer who is a friend of my mother’s (and who was a young editor back in the days when my mother was head of the children’s book department at Harper & Row). There was a Dominican woman who had been a caregiver to my brother’s girlfriend’s late mother, and her stoner son, Mackie. There was Christian LoPriore, a dreadlocked Italian, and his friend John. There were two 20-something musicians who lived in Hastings, and had been lined up by Rick Whalen, who lives across the street.
We were quite the crew, and we worked pretty much to the point of exhaustion. But by the end of the day, the house looked better than we did.
Here is what I did on the morning of the day my book won the James Beard Cookbook Award: made breakfast for Deborah and me (poached egg on top of humongous pile of steamed spinach, multigrain toast). Took Deborah (and her rolling suitcase) to the station so she could catch an early train into New York; she had two meetings before the Awards ceremony.
Had a discussion with Deborah in the car — themes and variations of “What if one of us wins and the other doesn’t?”.
Packed my own rolling suitcase with my dress-up clothes and make-up. Walked to the station in Hastings, and took an early afternoon train into New York.
My plan was, get to the hotel by 3:00, check in unpack, work out at the hotel’s fitness center, bathe, have a ten minute nap, and dress for the gala (the invitations said we had to be there at “5:30 sharp.” )
Here is what I did on the afternoon of the day my book won the James Beard Cookbook Award: got to the hotel at 3:00. Discovered that although I had packed my work-out clothes, makeup, sheer hose, heels, jewelry, and the sexy little stretch velvet top with the faux-fur neckline, I had forgotten the skirt.
Hauled ass over to Macy’s holding the thought “Long skirt — on sale — fast.” Found a skirt that fit the bill (and me).
Bought it. By now 4:15. Realizing work-out, bath, and nap were out of the question, stopped at the BeneFit cosmetic counter and asked a young woman whose tag read “Miss Marabou” if she would do my make-up for the occasion.
Miss Marabou, a gorgeous and voluptuous size 18, turned out to A) have a vegetarian roommate, and B) be a burlesque performer in her non-BeneFit hours, “So,” as she said, “I know how to do stage make-up.”
She did. Now a knock-out from the neck-up, haul-assed back to the hotel. 5:05. Flung on dress-up clothes including new skirt. Arrived at 5:35, sharp.
Here is what I did the night I won the James Beard Cookbook Award: found it impossible to find a place to stick my name-tag with its purple ribbon that said “Nominee” where it actually stayed stuck, except on the flesh of my sternum, where I finally put it.
Swanned around the reception before the gala for a few minutes. Sat in seat to which I had been assigned, which meant I was not near anyone I knew (though I knew Deborah was there somewhere in the midst of the 1200 or so attendees, along with Suzanne Rafer, one of the book’s editors).
Knew I would not be winning. After all, I did not win the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Award a month earlier, for which I had also been nominated.
Cheered, loudly and excitedly, when Deborah and The Flavors of Olive Oil won. Watched other categories of books be announced, described (there are 13 categories altogether), the finalist’s books’ covers flashed on a giant video screen. Heard various presenters say, “And the winner is — “as they opened envelopes, in the time-honored Oscar manner.
Remained convinced that I was not going to win. Not only had I not won the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award a month earlier, this time I was up against The Healthy Kitchen, by Dr. Andrew Weil and Rosie Daley. A beautifully designed book with good solid content, I considered it strong contender (stronger, in my opinion, than the one I lost to at IACP).
Heard The Turmeric Trail, a recipes-plus-memoir cookbook by my friend Raghavan Iyer, which I felt sure would win, which I felt should win, not win.
Heard my category (‘Vegetarian / Healthy Focus”) announced by Jacques Pepin. Saw the covers of the nominated titles flash on the video screen. And the envelope please!
“And the winner is…” (in Pepin’s lovely French-accented English) “Passionate Vegetarian!”
Run to the stage. (Later, friends in the audience would comment on my speed. “Did you think they were going to change their minds?” someone asked me. After the third such comment, I started saying, “Well, I had to hold up the escutcheon of vegetarians as high energy people.”)
Discovered why people who win Oscars frequently burble inarticulately.
Here is what I think I said, more or less, the night I won the James Beard Award.
“Thank you, Beard Foundation. Thank you, Suzanne Rafer and Jen Griffin, my stalwart editors. Thank you, Jim Eber and Kate Tyler, Workman’s indefatigable publicists. Thank you, illustrator Robbin Gourley. Thank you, Edite Kroll, terrific agent.
“As some of you know, this book is dedicated to my late husband. That dedication is ‘ For Ned Shank, February 19, 1956 to November 30, 2000: What a feast we had.’ And we did feast. Ned was so much a part of this book. So, thank you, Ned.” (I kissed my fingertips, raised my hand, blew the kiss upwards into the ether. Maybe somehow, some way, Ned received it. And maybe not.)
“And lastly, thank you all, my colleagues. On this brief and unpredictable ride, in our lovely, bittersweet lives on this planet, those of us who work with food are privileged. We get to offer others nourishment and celebration, remind them of sensual pleasure, of each other, and of the fragile globe which gives us our food and of which we are part and which we all share, passionately.”
DESERVING, WINNING & LOSING
Before the IACP Award (the one I did not win), I spent some time thinking about deserving, winning and losing, those enormously freighted concepts.
I decided that since Passionate Vegetarian would be the same book regardless of whether I won or lost, that I, too, would be the same too. I made up my mind that if I lost I wouldn’t be crushed and that if I won, while pleased, I wouldn’t be ecstatic.
Moreover, I knew, down to the cellular level, that in this life “deserving”, while a nice idea, rarely proves out in the way we think it should. For myself, I have had honors and privileges and joys and blessings I know I didn’t deserve, at least on any scale of measurement I have access to — any more than I deserved the experiences so tough they removed my heart’s skin and most cherished beliefs strip by strip, as if with a vegetable peeler.
But throughout the week of the IACP conference, people kept telling me things like, “You’re a shoe-in,” and “I’ll be standing up cheering for you when you get that award.”
Gradually, the suspicion that I might, no, would, win began to creep up on me, seductively. It didn’t matter if I won or lost, I still thought… but how nice that I was in fact going to win!
Then, I didn’t win.
And I found out that instead of feeling pleased but basically the same, as I had told myself I would, I was bitterly disappointed.
Which meant I felt doubly terrible: first because I had lost, secondly because I felt I shouldn’t be feeling that way: I wasn’t living up to my own articulated self-ideals and beliefs.
Fortunately, I was with the perfect person to whom to vent: he is a former documentary filmmaker who was once nominated for an Academy Award but did not get it. He tipped his handsome head to one side as I railed about how angry I was at myself for being so disappointed. And he remarked quizzically, kindly: “Well… I think it’ll be at least sixty more years before you’re perfect.”
EXPECTATIONS & STRAWBERRIES
Expectations: of winning or losing, of how what we should feel, of what our lives, young and old, will and should be like, of what we “deserve” — they can zap a person every time.
We have to “stay fluid”, as my friend, the late artist Elsie Freund, once told me: something as hard to do as it is necessary if we are to live with any hope of equanimity and happiness.
When, despite my certainty that I was not going to win the James Beard Award, I did, it turned out I was ecstatic.
THE MORNING AFTER
Here’s what I did the morning after my book won the James Beard Award.
Before I took the train back to Hastings, I was waiting in the lobby of the W Hotel for Edite, my agent, with whom I would be having breakfast. I was sitting by the fireplace, having walked over in an unseasonably chilly drizzle. But I felt warm, still glowing with the satisfaction of the previous night’s win.
I told myself, “Crescent, you’re the same, the book is the same, how about just a little bit of wisdom here, don’t get too elated now.”
And then I thought, “Hell, I’m going to enjoy this at least to the same extent and level I didn’t enjoy losing the other!”
And so, when Edite arrived, she and I had an exceptionally good breakfast (I recommend the W’s granola and fresh fruit highly), where she asked me about, and I recapped, every moment of the previous night’s adventure, in probably excruciating detail.
THE DAY AFTER
Here’s what else I did the day after my book won the James Beard Award.
Took the train back to Hastings.
Returned two lamps with a design defect to K-Mart.
Drove the rented Grand Prix to Cedar Manor Rehabilitation Center in Ossining, New York, for a meeting with my mother. Also at this meeting were her geriatric care assessment manager, Micki, and her bookkeeper and good friend Joan.
My mother was extremely angry. She was angry that “we thought” she needed a caregiver. She was angry that she “hadn’t been consulted” before various decisions had been made. (She had been, but she had forgotten.) She told us about the qualities and attributes we should look for in the long-term caregiver for her once she gets home, “since you are insisting on this,” and how to go about finding such a person.
She articulated the kind of person she wanted: “They must be literary… Ideally, they would have had some background in publishing or writing, in addition to the more physical parts of helping me. They have to be there when I need them, but then go away, I don’t want them watching over me. I want someone intelligent, but sensitive.”
Micki, Joan and I listened. We tried to get across information about what long-term care insurance would and wouldn’t cover. We did not try o get across what all three of us knew, that we would never find such a person — first because ideal people do not exist, and secondly, because the options of an 87-year-old, nearly blind, partially disabled woman, who is not wealthy, are limited.
THE DAY AFTER THAT
The following day, I flew home to Arkansas. In any case, there was still a little time — my mother would be in rehab another two weeks — and I had gotten her house finished. She would not have to stay in “this place” as she angrily referred to the rehab center, “this snake pit.” She could go home. I had done all I could at that point.
So I am back in Arkansas. Where, yesterday, I bought fresh local strawberries, asparagus and Swiss chard, the latter veined with red and yellow and white, pulsing with life.
That same life which it is our privilege to live.
In which we are sometimes awarded, rewarded, sometimes with pleasant occurrences seemingly deserved. Sometimes with luck, public acclaim, and joy, quiet or otherwise.
And sometimes not. Sometimes our hard work goes unrecognized. Sometimes there are cruelties and betrayals, not only undeserved but heaped one on top of the other, for no good reason that we can comprehend. Sometimes our private burdens and sorrows seem past bearing; sometimes they come with public humiliations.
But here’s what I know. The passionate life is insistent. It cannot be lived partially, only in its entirety.
Rebecca Bingham says
Remarkable details from a remarkable woman who lives a remarkable life on remarkable terms.
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Thank you so much, dear Rebecca. xxxooo
Sara Chamberlin says
This is a lovely piece, Crescent. I love the everyday, necessary occurrences in our lives juxtaposed with the extraordinary moments–and I, too, have more than once forgotten to pack a skirt.
On a personal note, I stumble through my days trying to get to writing with such clarity–I’m glad you are there to urge me on–in so many ways.
Crescent Dragonwagon says
Thank you, Sara.
It’s all about the details, isn’t it? Indeed, I think the “necessary occurrences in our lives” are ALWAYS “juxtaposed with the extraordinary moments.”
And, the way you get to clarity is by stumbling, which involves much lack of clarity! I rediscover this on a daily basis…