Monday, March 24, 2014

Human terroir

So, there is this word that I’ve been swirling around in my mind palate/palette for a while now. It pertains to all things I love, not least of which is coffee (followed by bourbon, chocolate, wine and cheese and not necessarily in that order). Of course, it is a French word, because for some reason English does not have that all-encompassing quality that other tongues do when it comes to creating a scene as opposed to just saying what a thing is.

Terroir is one of my favorite words. I use the term more in my head than I do out loud (I know how to pronounce it just fine, by the way); maybe because it would sound ridiculous explaining to my brothers that I think Dunkin Donuts coffee tastes like shit is that there is no sense of terroir, that the beans are roasted with a bunch of chemicals and mixed together in a whorebed of greasy casings and unnatural flavorings.

“I can’t taste it anyway. I can’t taste the difference between black coffee from the Mobile or from some fancy café.”

At least they are honest. It makes me cringe and have sympathy heartburn pains.

Terroir is this: a sense of place; the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the production of the product.

So, if your Bolivian coffee tastes remotely of chocolate and black cherries and mountaintop, that’s because that stash of beans is surrounded by those elements and in a good bean, you will taste the flavors of the geography around it…you will taste the story of the place. It’s there, somewhere. For coffee geeks like me, it’s transformative. I drink good coffee because I want the experience of the coffee, not just the caffeine. I want to be transported to the tiny farm on some fog-covered hillside in South America. Or, if it’s a good French roast, a street café in Provence, watching the world go by while I sit back and sip and just be.

People rely on these moments. Mothers rely especially on these moments. It never fails that when I go into the furthest room of the house with my coffee, just to sit on the sun porch for a few minutes before the day explodes into work, school, permission slips, baseball, robotics, etc., that one of them will follow me into the room, guns blazing.

“What’s the most powerful car in the world?”

“I don’t know. A Bugatti?” Sip, sip. I can almost hear a Saint’s Day parade at the top of Machu Picchu…

“What’s the fastest Formula 1 car? Who drives it? Where’s the most dangerous track? Do you think I should be an architect or a race car driver?”


“Architect. That way I can sleep at night. Go brush your teeth.”

I know full well he will try to continue the conversation with a mouthful of toothpaste from the top of the stairs.
That’s his terroir. Toothpaste, cherry tomatoes and wood smoke are the overtones. He’s young, so things haven’t had a chance to deepen quite yet, but my guess is that he will have a floral quality to his skin and that his feet will always smell like soil and maybe a little bit of rubber from the years on the trampoline.

“You’re friggin’ nuts,” my daughter says in her most eloquent, pre-dawn tone. My theory on human terroir has lost me some credibility while we drive to school.

“I think about it all the time,” I say, turning down the radio that Lucian has just cranked to the ElecArea station which nearly gives me a heart attack. “It’s too early to feel like I’m in a nightclub in Berlin,” I say.

“So people have smells, is that what you’re saying. People are smelly because of where they live?”

“Well, that, too…but no. People will always carry the essence of how they grew from season to season. Like, this year, we had a lot of bonfires and campfires, so we are smoky. And we ate a lot of raspberries so there is a tanginess…sweet but sharp.”

I make eye contact with her in the rearview mirror.

“Very funny,” she says. “So, some years, can people turn bad? Can they be shitty and ‘taste’ like bad coffee?”

“Sure. I knew I guy who smelled like onions and bad Chinese food. It got stronger as the years rolled by.”

“That’s a lonely smell.”

“It is. Very lonely.”

I think back through the years of our terroir. How we’ve nearly ruined it with chemicals – Prozac, bad bourbon, cigarettes, Hamburger Helper, urban dust – and wonder how much of it we can hide in the final cupping. What will that last sip reveal? Will the despair of diner coffee overpower the longstanding presence of sawdust and cherry tobacco and fresh herbs from years of toiling in the garden? What a shame that would be.

Lucian pipes up, his 10-year-old face is ethereal like an alabaster statue.

“It’s not just the terroir [his pronunciation is more like ‘terror’], Ma. It’s how you prepare it, too. Sometimes people can have really good smells that are ruined by a crappy coffee maker.”

We drive by a flooded, icy field overrun by water seeping out from the Housatonic River.

“Toxic terroir,” my daughter says under her breath. “Totally toxic.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Making a face

This past Saturday, a group of us mother-writer-warrior types gathered to give a reading as the opening event for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. The prompt was given to us awhile ago and was inspired by Taylor Mali's poem, What Teachers Make. For the group of us, we were asked to consider "what do mothers make?" We make messes, we make babies, we make babies cry, we make muffins and shitty one-dish recipes from Pinterest, we make fun of ourselves, we make coffee...We make essays. In case you weren't there to catch the live reading, here's my thoughts on what this mother makes.

I try not to make a face as the hairdresser runs a flaming hot iron down my daughter’s jet-black hair. What she is doing defies gravity. The afro that my girl came off of the bus with, the one we have all come to love and recognize from afar, is transformed into a smooth airstrip. She is only 11, but the hair makes her look 15. I sip my coffee. The winter sun disappears behind the trees. The afro is gone.

“What do you think?” They both look at me expectantly. My daughter’s eyebrow is raised, the hairdresser is excited. I am trapped.
“You look beautiful,” I say. “You look beautiful.”

And she does. She is a stunning child. Always has been. Now, with the hair, she looks more like me than ever, but brighter. So much brighter. I try not to make a face.

In the car, my coffee is gone. My mind is stuffed with sadness. My girl, the puffy-haired queen who came into the world fighting and screaming for her life, is disappeared and a woman now occupies the passenger seat.

“What do you really think, Ma?” Half of her face is lit by street lamps. The other half is a mystery.

“I really think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. No matter what your hair looks like.”

I want to stop the car. To sweep her in a never-ending hug. To somehow make her understand the fierceness in me. But I keep driving. I try not to make a face.

My mother was good at not making a face. First, in fourth grade when I finally insisted that my waist-length Pocahontas hair needed to go. She made the appointment, she took me to the hairdresser; She watched as nearly two feet of my childhood was hacked from my little head and slithered down my back to the floor. She said she liked it. I was happy. She was happy. We went home happy.

My father nearly wept. “It’ll be much easier to manage,” my mother said nonchalantly from the kitchen. I watched my father’s face. “I’m still me,” I reassured him. “It’s still me. Besides, you shaved your beard.”

The haircut didn’t have quite the effect I was hoping for. I still had to do dishes. My mother made me wear stupid, Victorian-era outfits that I deliberately tried to sabotage at school. The yellow corduroy mini-dress mysteriously torn at the seam. The calico pinafore with the behemoth collar became filthy during a muddy kickball game.

“What happened to your dress?!” My mother always exclaimed, horrified.

“I told you, we had gym today.” I looked with envy at my brother’s overalls and t-shirt and short hair.

I tried not to make my daughter wear anything, remembering my mother’s attempts at disguising a cactus as a lily. For years, everyone thought my girl was a son. Her soccer jerseys and denim shorts did little to dispute the fact. Her afro was universal. I thought she was beautiful then. Even when people would ask “how old is he” I would correct them.

“SHE is eight,” I would say. I would say it with the same conviction when strangers asked if she was my foster child, or if she was adopted. They did not see the mirror of my face in her face. They did not see that we were of the same cloth. Hers was a bit darker, sure, but the eyes. The high cheekbones, the stubborn set of the mouth.

“SHE is mine” I said, so many times. I wanted them to know that I made this beautiful creature. That I alone and young and without resources raised up a healthy child in a sea of hard times. She was mine and I was hers.

I make her come with me everywhere I go. She tugs at my sleeve. Even now, as a teenager, she tugs at my sleeve while I am deep in conversation with this writer or that official or this teacher.

“Ma, we should go.”

I look right through her, mid-conversation. My eyes are ice and the air sucks out of the room (or the café, or right there on the sidewalk). The moment becomes awkward for everyone but me.

“Don’t interrupt me,” I say quietly. “Not ever.”

I nearly make her cry. She backs up slowly, just far enough to escape the frigid air, but close enough because she knows there is no place to go. And she knows that I will make her squirm in the car once the public pleasantries are finished. Her brother waits. He is patient with his mother who “knows everyone.” He makes me smile. In return, I make him a lot of hot chocolate. I cut him slack.

She makes no bones about my favoritism. If she only knew, if she only remembered what I made for her. The space that I carved out just for her. I made her a pink bedroom and I slept in the living room. I made her soups and cassoulet and soft biscuits, anything that would put a slow smile on her face. I poached eggs, I melted crayons, I took every small step with her; She never trailed behind me.

I made up the difference. I made her as proud as she made me.

Now, we are in the car, I am lecturing her. I make her cry.

“You are not the only person living in this house,” I yell. Her brother pretends to read the registration to the truck. My voice makes him uncomfortable.

“You have no right to treat anyone this way,” I am at full blast now. “Especially the people you live with. The people who are closest to you.”

She makes a face. “I’m not listening to this anymore.”

Then I put the nail in the coffin: “Is this how you show your love?”

We make amends after she gets off the bus. By the end of the day, we are speaking as if no rift occurred. As if the divide of psychological damage had been crossed by one bowl of matzo soup and one joke and one goodnight hug.

I make sure she knows that I love her. Because I do.

Later on in the week, I make a phone call. To the school.
“There is a group of them,” I say. “They’ve been calling her names on the bus. In the lunch line, behind her back. Sometimes to her face.”

“What kind of names,” they ask.

“Names like nigger,” I say. I make them uncomfortable. The word makes me sick. I want to go to each one of their ignorant houses and make them pay. Stuff their words into their foul mouths and make their parents weep with shame at how they have raised their children to speak to my daughter. The light of my days. The queen of my life. I make a sound in my throat. They assure me, they will take care of it.

I ask my girl about it. I ask her ‘how’d it go at school.’ She wasn’t going to tell me about the nasty remarks.
“It doesn’t make any difference to me,” she says between handfuls of popcorn. She is making a mess. I try not to notice. We are, after all, having a serious conversation.

“What do you mean it doesn’t make any difference?” How can she be so blasé when I am ready to go door-to-door ripping people’s throats out with my bare hands? This kind of rage makes me bulletproof.

“They’re not going to make me feel bad about myself, or make me get bad grades or make me lose my confidence if that’s what you’re worried about,” she says. She’s so on to me! My New Age mom attempt at preserving innocence and self-esteem and authenticity. I make a face.

“I can’t change who I am. They choose to be who they are,” she says. I wish she’d close her mouth while she chews. “I feel bad for them. I’m the one making a future for myself. Who gives a shit what a bunch of rednecks think about me?”

She’s made her point. I walk away, dumbfounded at her clear vision. Ruthless, but clear.

I make myself a cup of coffee and listen to her and her brother fight about what to watch for movie night Friday.

“How about Nemo,” I say from the kitchen, gripping my coffee, waiting for a fight.

“Good idea,” she says. I hear the DVD case pop open.

I made the right decision. For once, I made the right decision.