Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Mother's Day Cabbage Cleanse

I play Russian roulette with my arteries whenever I walk into a deli. My fatal coronary will be due to my high school math teacher, Mr. Schenck. He used to say, "Life is short, death is long, you're making both unbearable for me," during our daily hour together. I wasn't one of his better students in trig or calculus. I never asked stupider questions or had a more open-mouthed, dumb as a sack of nails look then those days when trying to comprehend math beyond the multiplication tables.

I did get something out of Mr. Schenck's sixty minutes of daily humiliation. I modified his aphorism about life to justify ordering cheese blintzes, corn beef sandwiches, potato pancakes, and a whole assortment of other normal heart-stoppers while I still have working taste buds. Life is far too short, so why not live it as a glutton?

This afternoon, I walked down to my favorite coronary occlusion, but ordered a big bowl of cabbage soup instead. Cabbage soup will always remind me of my English mother for it was her favorite meal. I have a bowl of it every Mother's Day in her memory. Any other time of the year, I would rather eat dirt.

My mother was the ultimate survivor. She weathered a cold orphanage from the age of three (her mother could not afford to keep her at home) and a burst appendix by six, with lifetime bouts of simmering peritonitis as a result. She pulled through dreary English winters and the nondescript summers that followed. She endured Dickensian schools in post Edwardian times. She persevered against the writings of Trollope, Thackeray and Bulwer-Lytton, yet her formal education ended at sixteen.

She saw Churchill speak in the rain and Hitchcock walking with his wife. She worked a thirty hour day during the Great Depression, juggling several jobs while taking care of her invalid mother. She outlasted The Battle of Britain and Werner Von Braun’s V2 Rockets , during which she was a daytime air raid warden and a night-time bomb shelter inhabitant. When the war ended, she counted the number of shrapnel scars on her body and decided enough was enough. She and my dad sailed to America on the Queen Mary to become Yankee Doodle Dandies.

She wasn't much for talking about her personal life. Every time I would ask her a question about her days in London, she would say, "What are you writing a biography?" Obviously not! Her expression would have been one of glassy-eyed indifference at the alliterative nonsense, "Greatest Generation" as if anyone in her generation had had any choice in the matter.

My mom was no econ professor from Dartmouth, but like everyone else who had tasted the gruel of the 1930s, she understood enough about the cyclical nature of the marketplace to forever be on the lookout for the next slide downwards. Economic Armageddon was always right around the corner for her. The banks would fail again; soup kitchens would once more litter the landscape; riding the rails would be the chosen form of public transportation other than shank's pony. The world would turn to cabbage soup as salvation. Then, no doubt, to the closest bathroom.

Pointing to the clouds over Lake Monona, she would say in her best Michael Caine Cockney accent, "One day those annoying rain clouds will be dust clouds spiraling towards the Greenbush area and they won't be a bunch of Hoovers in reverse".

Huh? I've Googled every English writer since Bede trying to reference that quote. No luck. What did she mean? England never witnessed any Woody Guthrie scenes during the Depression. I asked Greenbush old timers whether Madison had ever experienced dust bowls? I was seven years old at the time. They looked at me as if I were nuts; then they walked over to their liquor cabinets to check on the contents.

Maybe it was never meant to mean anything other than it was time for me to vacuum the rugs again.

According to her, most of England not associated with the Royal Family or aging Edwardian figures lived hand to mouth on vast quantities of cabbage soup. Perhaps, that's why the British Isles was so verdant. In fact this mush had kept the British people going since the days of the Celts. Had Harold II and his men at Hastings supped on cabbage soup the evening of October 13, 1066, the Anglo-Saxons could have beaten back the Norman invasion by collectively drowning them in a cleanse.

Certainly not a great story to persuade a child to continue to eat cabbage soup. I grew up believing that the lowly cabbage was, along with the RAF and the atomic bomb, the prime mover in winning World War II. Volunteering to face Axis gunfire rather than sitting home eating this swill made sense to me even as a youngster. At least away from this soup standing was an option.

Convinced that "another" dust bowl would soon hit Madison and we would all starve to death three times a day, I went out behind my house on Mound Street and plowed up the back forty...feet, planting nothing but cabbages. No tomatoes, lettuce, or rhubarb for me. I had become a survivalist without even owning a semi-automatic. At least eating cabbage soup would give me the strength to make a healthy run on the banks, my mom would say off-handedly, as over the years, she put bucket after bucket of this slop in front of me. In fact I suspect I would have kept on running.

She loved cabbage soup. I ate so much of that stuff as a kid that I could have filled a sixth Lake around Madison with its by-product. The English did not so much lose their Empire as poop it away.

So to celebrate Mother's Day, I offer up to my readers a film that certainly my mother was well aware of. I can imagine her sitting in a darkened theatre in 1943, smoking a fag (English slang for "cigarette" so put your eyeballs back in their sockets), waiting like everyone else to get through a war-time movie, perhaps starring Tyrone Powers or John Mills, before fleeing back to the air raid shelters and the privvies.

Note that the boys remain outside to take in the fresh air while the girls stand around in an airless kitchen breathing the cabbage soup fumes.

1 comment:

  1. Very endearing. I would love to have met your mother, although after reading this I feel like I already have!