Stone Bridge Press focuses on Asian-themed literature. I am delighted that my piece entitled "Uni!" was selected for the February 2017 Stone Bridge Café website.
Urchin, anyone? Check it out here: http://stonebridge.com/…og/stone-bridge-cafe-uni
or Read it here:
The old lady waved to me as I backpacked through her seaside village on my way around Shikoku. She was clearly happy about something she had spotted off the end of the rough wooden pier.
“Look over here! There’s uni!” she said, pointing below the surface of the water.
The Seto Sea gently slapped the shore. The water was the color of green tea, with a splash of cerulean. I glanced down, but I saw nothing. She pointed again.
“You eat uni?” she asked, looking into my foreign eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never tried it.”
As a walking pilgrim, I was mostly eating in the dining halls of the Buddhist temples where I slept. There was never sea urchin on the menu. I supplemented the temple food with cheap udon, veggies, and plenty of Shikoku’s ubiquitous citrus fruit.
I knew that fresh uni was a beloved Japanese food, a creature prized for its privates – not the roe but the testes…which were reportedly as soft as what? Sweet butter, lemon custard, a baby’s thumb?
“Ah, just wait, chotto matte,” said the old woman as she looked around on the dock for a spear.
I gathered that she was about to procure us some urchin.
Perhaps she was offering me this delicacy as a form of o-settai, the special gift which Shikoku people bestow on walking pilgrims. I had already met hundreds of residents bearing o-settai, as I made my way along the circular 1200-kilometer route starting at Tokushima. They had come running after me with their blessings and their small presents: hand-crocheted Kleenex holders, ball point pens, hard candies, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, freshly made omigiri.
And now, today, I was being gifted with an opportunity to taste sea urchin.
My Japanese was hesitant, but my palate was willing. I suddenly remembered an expression from a Japanese textbook. Waku waku shiteiru. I’m excited, I told the old woman. I hoped she could sense my gratitude.
I watched as she creaked to her knees, and then leaned over the water. At her age – she had told me she was almost eighty – her agility was remarkable. I understood that her fisherman husband must have died long ago, leaving her all alone in the little house by the sea.
I started to puff up at the thought of my good fortune. A chance meeting with someone who was kind enough to offer me a Japanese luxury. That’s the kind of thing that happens to real adventurers, I gloated to myself. In the moment, I completely forgot about my goal of being a humble o-henro on a spiritual quest.
The old lady stabbed once and missed. Then stabbed again and whooped like a schoolgirl.
She raised the spear out of the water and showed off the carapaced globe, symmetrically radial and as spiky as a garden teasel.
To arrive at the meaty jewel, she covered her hands in thick rubbery-fabric gloves, and worked slowly, but deftly, like a heart surgeon.
A lone spine brushed her bare forearm and sliced a thin crimson trough in her skin. She stopped the bleeding with the edge of her apron and kept on working to pull apart the exoskeleton and expose the living treasure.
“Mo sugu. Pretty soon,” she said, pulling off her gloves and rushing into her house.
She returned with soy sauce and a plate. A single plate. Heavy stoneware with a dull finish, chipped on the side.
She placed the naked flesh in the center and bathed it in shoyu.
“Now you can see how we Japanese eat uni,” she said.
After a quick itadakimasu, she swallowed, before my very eyes,
Parks and Points is an interesting site. They celebrate nature and the out-of-doors, especially our state and national parks. I am delighted to be included in their 2017 Poetry Series! Here is my poem about Asseateague Island National Seashore (the place with the wild ponies!) Read it here:parksandpoints.com/poetry2017/shelter
BioStories.com is a great place for reading memoirs and recollections.
My piece, The Wild Cherry Tree, appears in Volume 7. Number 1. It was also subsequently reprinted in a BioStories anthology, published in 2018.
Read it below:
Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.
should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring, when yellow-white tentacles
of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.
it’s beautiful,” I’d say.
have other trees,” Mother would insist.
the 1950’s. We were living at the time in a historic valley in New Jersey,
settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th
century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and
oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage
brook that bordered our property.
August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her
year,” she’d say. “We’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”
liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus
Serotia was not.
wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and
fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.
we eat the cherries?” I once asked.
course not,” said Mother, “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless
that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides,wasn’t
Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World
War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?
odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.
Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She
could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was
sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.
a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from
her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame.
Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle
whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.
her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a
century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good
Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart
clearly wasn’t in it.
don’t belong here,” she’d say.
where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry
tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke
of loving him.
weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.
lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely
remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a
smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal
grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.
Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came
around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the
arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go
outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.
the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the
grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe
freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up
at bare branches creaking in the wind.
summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung
over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes
actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate,
girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack.
I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed.
Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad,
and contraband candy such as Necco Wafersor a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About
half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the
coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my
older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.
morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The
Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers.
They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong
leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree
was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective
Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t
think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely
unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house
after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by
myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of
forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our
property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the
day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren
would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the
other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from
the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco
Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered,
through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus
Serotia was perfectly edible.
night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through
our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm
damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards
our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.
immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.
had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in
its wake, like the old movie character,
limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across
the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.
rushing back in, breathless.
you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”
accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”
feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I
ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.
those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History
of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy
beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and
leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the
wreckage of war.
a horrible time,” she’d say.
knew, even as an eleven year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in
the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying
over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was
not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city.
I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.
couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in
their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of
ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump
Mother and I never talked about
the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the
smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was
hard to tell for sure.
I’m fortunate to have old friends, who have known me through the different stages of my life. I examine one of those cherished friendships in a poem entitled “The Lakeside Diner” which appears in January 2017 issue of Poetry Breakfast. Check it out at:http://poetrybreakfast.com or read it below:
The Lakeside Diner
The LakeSide Diner, homemade donuts, no lake,
just a pond, slick and thick as the Navy Bean soup
offered as a lunch special with a half grilled cheese on the side.
We greet each other in the parking lot, admire the October
foliage just turning yellow like a old wedding dress,
a few fallen leaves slippery under our sensible shoes.
We take a seat by the window, two old and good friends
meeting in a strange town, equidistant from our current homes,
hungry for news and reassurance that the other still
breathes and lives and reads, but not as much as she used to.
Once, decades past, we watched our little boys
placing gumdrops on the roof of a gingerbread house,
racing toy trucks to the sofa, while we, then as now, and for years in between,
talked about sacred and quiet things.
Today we order scrambled eggs, no butter, tea,
each weighing private matters of digestion,
trying not to stare too long at the other’s face growing wiser by the minute,
preferring at times to look out at the mallards gliding along
the surface of the scummy water
carrying on as if there will be no winter, no ice, no need to fly south.
Poetry Breakfast.com is a marvelous site which delivers a daily poem, like a fresh croissant. (Or a scone, or a blueberry muffin, depending). My poem "Tethered" appeared in the January 6, 2017 edition.
The grand-babies appeared among us, delivered on the doorstep, wrinkled like little rutabagas. They were new, untouched, plucked fresh from the garden, or wherever they come from, babies. No one knows.
They showed up just as I was thinking about my own departure, Not that I’m ready to leave, but let’s face it, the earth, sometime soon, will call me home.
That’s how it is. Someone always arriving, someone always heading off.
Seven decades, moving towards eight, I am. Getting a bit crusty around the edges, like stale bread, that’s what old folks are. But the babies are wet and soft, like the flesh of summer plums. They drip and drool and taste delicious.
I hold them tight, gumming them with kisses, rocking them with cradle songs from the old country, the ones my Nonna sang to me.
And I can feel time like a feather, tickling my heart.
One of my poems recently appeared in an anthology of work inspired by music, published by The Poetry Box. This is a literary journal based in Portland, Oregon.They held a launch on November 13, 2016.
Read it here:
Puccini, in those days.
Even when I was a toddler, I loved my Puccini.
Pooo chee nee. Pooo chee nee.
“She wants to come for a listen” Grandfather would say, yielding to my
While the rest of the family sat around the dinner table, everyone nursing the strong LaVazza, the women (in those days) refilling the cups,
I’d be carried out to the living room, to the velvet sofa, to the rows of records lining the walls.
“What’s that? “Grandpa would ask, pointing to his ancient Victrola,its bulbous cornucopia, the little dog logo.
Pooo chee nee. Pooo chee nee,
Grandpa would put a record on, newly vinyl (in those days) and we’d settle in. He’d put one arm around me like a shawl, the thin smoke of his Camel cigarette curling through my hair, the smell of tobacco mingling with baby powder. I’d stick my thumb in my mouth and fall asleep.
Later, at eight or nine, I looked forward to the same ritual, Grandpa and I on the sofa, Puccini between us like an old friend.
By then, I knew every scratch, every hesitation,
the crescendo of poor Butterfly left waiting,
the minor key of Mimi coughing in the night,
the arpeggios of longing and loss.
Sometimes the old man would close his eyes and doze,
not even awakening when the record needle began to wander towards the paper label.
Tosca’s last leaping cry just a whisper in his mind.
By then, I’d learned to gingerly take Puccini off the spindle by myself, and place him back in his cardboard sleeve, like tucking in a child for the night.
I’d tiptoe out of the room, my heart a little wider, the world a little softer. (In those days).