Thanksgiving, mothers, food and unspoken love

Ancestors' Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Ancestors’ Song by Maria Mazziotti Gillan

A friend of mine went to a conference in New York City a few weeks back, where she saw the poet, Maria Mazziotti Gillan.  When she returned, she had thoughtfully brought me back a copy of Gillan’s latest collection, Ancestors’ Song, with a lovely note on the title page (which I didn’t discover until I had read most of it two or three times.)

The poems are powerful. They are heart-wrenching and thought provoking and memory inducing.

Anyway, I thought I would share one with you. (I hope that Ms. Gillan does not mind.)

Even if you claim not to like poetry, read this one anyway. It is not a thanksgiving day poem, but a poem about mothers and food and abundance and unspoken love, things that are often intertwined during this holiday which so heavily focuses on the kitchen and table.

Enjoy it:

Conjuring Up My Mother

Why this morning, twenty years after my mother died,
do I conjure her up in her basement kitchen, clear
as if I had seen her yesterday? Watch her lift the roasting
pan out of the oven, the chicken browned and sizzling,
the oven-roasted potatoes, sliced and quartered, brown
and gold. Watch her pull out the stuffed artichokes, dark
green leaves holding homemade breadcrumbs that have formed
a crust while the artichokes cooked. She places the food carefully
as an artist on serving platters in the basement dining room
where 16 of us sit around three tables placed end to end
to form a long row. The chicken and artichokes are the third
course she has served this Sunday, as she does each Sunday, her
children and grandchildren laughing and talking, take for granted
the aroma of tomato sauce and homemade ravioli, meatballs, bowls
of olives and walnuts, huge salads from her garden, the entire meal
ending with her special lemon cake and bowls of fruit and cookies
and espresso. Such bounty presented to us each week as though it
would go on forever, my mother happy to be cooking for hours before
we arrived from our morning coffee and NYTimes and sleeping in, happy
to see us all together at her table, the way we came to believe we deserved
to be served, came to believe she would always be there. Even now, I imagine
I can see the crispy skin of that chicken, long since eaten, the crusty potatoes,
the artichoke leaves, the bread stuffing, that I could drive to her house
and she’d be waiting for me, and not as I do now, each day, all the voices
that surrounded me vanished, only this memory to comfort me in my empty
house where too often, I eat alone.

“Conjuring Up My Mother,” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan.  In Ancestors’ Song, Bordighera Press, 2013.

Movie Review: The Footnote: fathers and sons, parents and children

Juliet being bullied by her father

I have always been fascinated by the importance of parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. As school children, one of the first plays we read is Romeo and Juliet and aside from the love story, the second major story is Juliet’s relationship with her parents. The mother is cold and aloof and the father, while seemingly sensible in the beginning, shows himself an insensitive brute. Then there is Hamlet–a psychiatrist’s field-guide to dysfunctional parenting. In the histories, there is Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; the tragedies also give us King Lear–a tragedy of parenting if ever there were one; the romances give us The Tempest with the sorcerer Prospero manipulating his daughter’s–and everyone else’s–life. Throughout the canon, there are lovers blocked by parents, young nobles obeying the edicts of  fathers, and even a childless woman declaring what violence she would wreak on her children if she had them.

Hamlet berating his mother

And then I thought how much all of literature is tied in with this theme. From the earliest fairy-tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin to the Greek plays–where does one begin with Oedipus?–the dynamic between parent and child is in the foreground. As for the great epics: The Odyssey is really a tale of a son trying to find his father, as is its modern counterpoint, Ulysses,where “fatherless” Stephen is cared for by Bloom who mourns the death of his own infant son; and what is Paradise Lost but a father punishing his errant children?  In Great Expectations Pip is orphaned and raised by a beastly sister and her kind and understanding husband. In Huck Finn, Huck is trying to survive in spite of the obstacles that the disreputable Pap has put in his way. And even a modern potboiler like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is founded on several perverse father/child relationships.

Lisbeth Salander and her father from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So I thought of all of this as I left the theater Sunday after watching The Footnote. An Israeli film, The Footnote follows a father and son, both Talmudic scholars through their strained relationship. The father’s career–rightly or wrongly–stalled early in its course. The son, on the other hand, is immensely successful. The film opens with an award ceremony where the son is being inducted into the Academy of Sciences. In his thank-you speech, the son focuses on what an inspiration and model his father was, but the father is so filled with envy, anger, and bile that he walks out of the theater.

Son and father from The Footnote

Later, the father receives a telephone call informing him that he has won the prestigious Israeli Prize, an award given by the President of Israel to an important scholar. The call is actually a mistake and was intended for the son who naturally has the same last name.  The son is informed of the mistake and told that he must be the one to tell his father. What ensues is riveting, heartwrenching, and sad.

The soured relationship between the two is echoed with the son’s strained relationship with his own adolescent child. At times, it seems the women are holding things in place, but I am not completely sure. There is a lot of dishonesty, a terrible lack of communication, and an underlying egoism that is poisoning the family dynamic.

The film is very good.  It is one of those films that you talk about long after, and think about much longer than that.